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
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.

What We're Following See More »
Sheila Jackson-Lee Resigns as CBC Foundation Chair
7 minutes ago
Trump Says He's Delivering SOTU as Planned
35 minutes ago
House Democrats Investigating White House Security Clearances
1 hours ago

"The House Oversight Committee is launching an investigation into the White House security clearance process, an inquiry that promises to put a spotlight on how President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, overcame concerns to gain access to highly classified information." Others to be investigated are former staffer Seb Gorka, National Security Adviser John Bolton, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, and former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

House GOP Cancels Retreat
3 hours ago
Senate Will Vote on Competing Plans to End Shutdown
3 hours ago

"After spending weeks on the sideline, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has entered the shutdown fray, striking an agreement with Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to vote on competing proposals to reopen the government. The two votes will happen on Thursday...Senators will first have an opportunity to go on the record on President Trump's proposal to extend legal protections for some immigrants for three years in exchange for $5.7 billion for a border wall....If (and when) that bill fails, McConnell will move on to… a 'clean' continuing resolution to reopen the government for three weeks, with no additional border wall money."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.