Ending an acrimonious months-long stalemate, the Senate voted 74-26 to pass a bill raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through the 2012 election and reducing the deficit in multiple steps. President Obama swiftly signed the measure into law.
"For the first time in a very long time, we can say to the American people that we're finally facing in the right direction," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped broker the deal.
During the anticlimactic floor debate early on Tuesday, several senators lamented that the measure could have been more wide-ranging. Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "At best, it is a reversal of previous tax-and-spending policy." He said he would vote for the bill despite his objections.
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Many Democrats said they were backing the bill reluctantly because it does not mandate added revenue.
“There are parts of it that I will struggle to explain and defend,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “But we can’t let the American economy descend into chaos if we fail to extend the debt ceiling.”
“You’re told in life to follow your conscience,” said Durbin, who in an unusual move presided over the Senate for the vote. “Well, Madam President, on this matter my conscience is conflicted.”
Opponents of the bill mostly included those on the far left, who complained about the impact of spending cuts as well as those on the far right, who said the cuts weren't deep enough. But some conservative Democrats also refused to back the measure, including Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
The Senate vote brings an end to a months-long battle that featured closed-door negotiations, a half-dozen dueling plans, market worries, and the risk that the United States would for the first time ever default on its debt.
“Our country was literally on the verge of a disaster,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said just before voting began. “One day left, we were able to get together and avert that disaster.”
But Reid was blunt about where the $2.4 trillion debt-ceiling compromise cut between the White House and congressional leaders leaves the country. Asked Monday if additional deficit-reduction efforts will be necessary, Reid said, “The answer is not only yes, but hell yes.”
Any senator could have forced delays that barred passage of the measure until after the end of Tuesday—the deadline set by the Treasury Department for the country to begin defaulting on its debts. But members signed off on a unanimous-consent deal to allow a vote to proceed with a 60-vote threshold. "We're not gonna hold it up," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a "no" vote.
GOP senators grumbled on Monday about defense cuts in the bill. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and David Vitter, R-La., were among those who announced their opposition.
The vote will unofficially kick off the Senate’s August recess. The Senate later on Tuesday is set to wrap up its business until September 6, though the House’s failure to pass an adjournment resolution likely means the Senate will not officially adjourn. That will bar Obama from making recess appointments in August.
This article appears in the August 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.