The Senate Has Raised the Debt Ceiling. Are These Constant Battles Over?

Congress has passed a debt-ceiling raise weeks before hitting the deadline. But this doesn’t mean the fight is permanently over.

 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is reflected in a television displaying a count of the number of people losing unemployment benefits during a news conference with Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and other Senate Democratic leaders at the U.S. Capitol February 6, 2014.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Elahe Izadi
Sarah Mimms Elahe Izadi
Feb. 12, 2014, 10:19 a.m.

It took an act of God to get Con­gress to move quickly on the debt ceil­ing, but move quickly it did. The Sen­ate passed an in­crease in the debt ceil­ing Wed­nes­day, 55-43, more than two weeks be­fore the na­tion was set to de­fault. And it happened with little up­roar, fore­cast­ing an end to the debt-lim­it brink­man­ship that has nearly crippled Wash­ing­ton an­nu­ally since Speak­er John Boehner took the gavel in 2011.

With snow threat­en­ing to pum­mel the Wash­ing­ton area, Con­gress moved up its sched­ule Wed­nes­day, in­tro­du­cing debt-ceil­ing le­gis­la­tion in the House on Tues­day morn­ing and passing it with­in hours, with a ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats and 28 Re­pub­lic­ans join­ing to­geth­er.

The Wed­nes­day Sen­ate vote didn’t come without drama. Sen. Ted Cruz ob­jec­ted to al­low­ing the debt-lim­it bill to pass with a simple ma­jor­ity, which would have spared any Re­pub­lic­ans from hav­ing to vote for it. And the clo­ture vote to shut off de­bate was tense, last­ing al­most ex­actly an hour as Re­pub­lic­ans tried to find the votes for pas­sage.

There was a lot of wrangling on the Sen­ate floor dur­ing the clo­ture vote. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Bob Cork­er stayed by the Sen­ate clerk’s desk, look­ing tense. When Cruz walked in to cast his vote, Murkowski turned away from him and then walked away from the desk.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship worked the floor as they searched for votes. Fi­nally, sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers ex­ited the cloak­room and changed their votes, as if to say “let’s all hold hands and jump to­geth­er.” First, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn cast yes votes, with the lat­ter hav­ing ini­tially voted no.

Then, one by one, John Bar­rasso,  John Mc­Cain, John Thune, Or­rin Hatch, and Jeff Flake changed their votes to yes. The fi­nal vote on clo­ture was 67-31, with 12 Re­pub­lic­ans join­ing Demo­crats to end de­bate.

Sen. Mike Jo­hanns, R-Neb., who was the first Re­pub­lic­an to cast a yea vote on clo­ture, cred­ited Mc­Cain, Murkowski, and oth­ers with or­gan­iz­ing the vote flip. He also praised Mc­Con­nell and Cornyn for their votes. “They’re great lead­ers,” he said.

Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., an­oth­er early yea, called his 11 fel­low mem­bers “re­spons­ible,” but cri­ti­cized Cruz for threat­en­ing the na­tion’s cred­it rat­ing.

“If any­body should be con­cerned about us not get­ting fisc­al re­forms as part of the debt ceil­ing it’s me,” Cork­er said, adding that he planned to op­pose the fi­nal bill. “We could have had a 50-vote threshold,” Cork­er said. “There was no end-game there, there was no out­come that was ever dis­cussed.”

“You know, we can put the coun­try through two weeks of tur­moil or we can get this vote be­hind us…. Was there some oth­er de­bate that we were miss­ing here? The fact is, the House could only pass a clean debt ceil­ing,” Cork­er ad­ded.

Mc­Cain also praised GOP lead­er­ship for vot­ing for clo­ture. “I must say it was a very cour­ageous act es­pe­cially for Sen. Mc­Con­nell who we all know is in a very tough race,” Mc­Cain said. “He knows he’s the lead­er, the elec­ted Re­pub­lic­an lead­er.” Mc­Cain wouldn’t re­count what ex­actly went on in the cloak­room, but said, “We had good con­ver­sa­tions,” and again praised Cornyn and Mc­Con­nell, as well as Thune, for their lead­er­ship.

Those votes to end de­bate could come back to haunt the GOP lead­ers, as both Mc­Con­nell and Cornyn are fa­cing primary chal­lengers in their reelec­tion cam­paigns this year. The Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund is already tweet­ing that “Ken­tucky de­serves bet­ter.” And it wouldn’t have had to hap­pen if not for Cruz.

“I think his memory doesn’t seem to last longer than six months,” Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., said of Cruz’s push­back, re­fer­ring to the Texas Re­pub­lic­an’s sup­port of the gov­ern­ment shut­down last Oc­to­ber.

Cruz wasn’t apo­lo­get­ic. 

“If you look his­tor­ic­ally, the last 55 times the debt ceil­ing has been raised, 28 of those times Con­gress has at­tached mean­ing­ful spend­ing re­stric­tions. It has his­tor­ic­ally been the most ef­fect­ive lever­age Con­gress had and today Con­gress de­cided to ab­dic­ate that lever­age, ab­dic­ate its lead­er­ship,” a vis­ibly frus­trated Cruz said.

Asked wheth­er Mc­Con­nell should keep his job as minor­ity lead­er, Cruz said only: “That is ul­ti­mately a de­cision, in the first in­stance, for the voters of Ken­tucky.”

Pres­id­ent Obama has in­dic­ated that he will sign the le­gis­la­tion, which will al­low the na­tion to pay its bills through March 15, 2015.

The debt lim­it has been the de­fin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of a grid­locked Wash­ing­ton, with the na­tion com­ing to the brink of a de­fault sev­er­al times, most re­cently saved by a last-minute deal last Oc­to­ber. But don’t ex­pect Con­gress to do much with more than a year without an im­pend­ing dead­line on its plate; the rest of 2014 is pretty much filler.

Though the vast ma­jor­ity of the House Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence op­posed the meas­ure, con­ser­vat­ives quickly gave up on us­ing the Feb. 27 debt-lim­it dead­line as lever­age to cut over­all spend­ing, ac­know­ledging that the pres­id­ent was not will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate over the mat­ter. Pres­id­ent Obama and Sen­ate Demo­crats have long said that they would ac­cept only a clean debt-ceil­ing lift.

Amid ar­gu­ments among the House ma­jor­ity con­fer­ence, many Re­pub­lic­ans con­ceded that they would not be able to at­tach any con­ser­vat­ive meas­ures to the debt-ceil­ing in­crease as long as Obama re­mains pres­id­ent and Demo­crats con­trol the Sen­ate.

“It’s just a mat­ter of keep­ing the fund­ing go­ing con­sist­ent with the om­ni­bus un­til the Novem­ber elec­tions and hope­fully we have more Re­pub­lic­ans, we con­trol the Sen­ate, and maybe we can start some of these re­forms,” Rep. John Flem­ing, a mem­ber of the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, ad­mit­ted last week.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., be­moaned the fact that his party wasn’t will­ing to put up more of a fight for con­ces­sions from Demo­crats over spend­ing, ar­guing that the GOP will have to stand its ground if it hopes to do bet­ter in the fu­ture. “Re­pub­lic­ans will need to be will­ing to fight for it, if we’re go­ing to get that,” he said.

A num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans don’t see the debt-lim­it-as-lever­age tac­tic go­ing away in the long-term, but in the short-term many are ac­cept­ing the polit­ic­al real­ity. Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dar­rell Issa, who voted for the debt-ceil­ing in­crease, said there is no mech­an­ism for Re­pub­lic­ans right now to bring down spend­ing and de­fi­cits. “We don’t have one un­der this pres­id­ent. This is a tax-and-spend pres­id­ent.”

That’s good news for the na­tion’s cred­it rat­ing, which was down­graded in 2011 dur­ing the tense ne­go­ti­ations of the debt-lim­it in­crease. Demo­crats are en­cour­aged by Re­pub­lic­ans’ move to pass a clean debt ceil­ing, par­tic­u­larly with room to spare be­fore the dead­line. “I hope [that this con­tin­ues],” Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., said Wed­nes­day. “I think John Boehner showed real lead­er­ship.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., was sim­il­arly op­tim­ist­ic. “I think we will go back to the re­spons­ible way of mak­ing sure that our coun­try does not de­fault,” she said.

But that op­tim­ism is tempered by the know­ledge that just be­cause Demo­crats held the strongest hand this time around, it doesn’t mean they will main­tain it. What goes up must come down.

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