House Quickly Votes to Raise the Debt Ceiling, Then Heads Home

The final plan came together in less than a day. But some Republicans are headed for an unhappy break.

The U.S. Capitol is reflected in water as two Ducks swim past, October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izad and Sarah Mimms
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Elahe Izad Sarah Mimms
Feb. 11, 2014, 12:28 p.m.

After a tu­mul­tu­ous 24-hours of wrangling with­in the Re­pub­lic­an caucus, the House passed a clean debt ceil­ing in­crease with sur­pris­ingly little drama Tues­day af­ter­noon, 221-201. Speak­er John Boehner, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, and Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy voted for the in­crease. House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an, on the oth­er hand, voted against the bill.

Less than 12 hours after Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship un­veiled the clean bill, the House passed the meas­ure and re­cessed, send­ing home 28 Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers with an “aye” on a clean debt ceil­ing vote hanging over their heads un­til they re­turn on Feb­ru­ary 25. Con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, as well as out­side groups like the Her­it­age Ac­tion and the Club for Growth, vehe­mently op­posed the meas­ure.

Once again, a debt ceil­ing in­crease passed thanks to a ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats, with only two no votes. Five Re­pub­lic­ans and five Demo­crats didn’t vote on the meas­ure.

The bill will raise the debt ceil­ing through March 15, 2015, without provid­ing any ad­di­tion­al spend­ing cuts to off­set the in­crease.

House lead­er­ship was caught in a lose-lose situ­ation on the debt ceil­ing this year. House Speak­er John Boehner quickly learned that he would not be able to get 218 votes from his own caucus on any in­crease in the debt ceil­ing and worked in­stead to find a meas­ure that would at­tract some Demo­crats. But with Demo­crats and the pres­id­ent in­sist­ing that they would not ac­cept any­thing but a clean bill, Boehner’s hands were tied.

Rep. Dar­rell Issa, one of the Re­pub­lic­ans who voted for the in­crease, said that “I don’t think that the debt lim­it is something that people who vote for the budget and for ap­pro­pri­ations can fail to vote for.” Of course, the Re­pub­lic­an in charge of the budget com­mit­tee — Paul Ry­an — wound up vot­ing against the bill.

Ry­an ar­gued after passing the budget deal that more needs to be done to re­duce the de­fi­cit and wor­ried that a clean debt ceil­ing did little to im­prove the na­tion’s fin­ances. “This is a missed op­por­tun­ity,” Ry­an said in a state­ment after the vote. “We need to pay our bills today and make sure we can pay our bills to­mor­row. I’m dis­ap­poin­ted that the Pres­id­ent and Sen­ate Demo­crats re­fuse to get ser­i­ous about our fisc­al chal­lenges.”

The clean in­crease is a dis­ap­point­ment for many Re­pub­lic­ans, who had hoped to use the pending Feb. 27 dead­line to raise the coun­try’s bor­row­ing lim­it as a bar­gain­ing chip, want­ing to ex­tract sig­ni­fic­ant, if not equi­val­ent, spend­ing cuts. Even those who didn’t see that as a pos­sib­il­ity wanted something in re­turn for rais­ing the debt lim­it, such as changes to the Af­ford­able Care Act or Key­stone XL pipeline.

Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Tom Cole voted against the clean bill. “The pres­id­ent, hon­estly, I don’t think should be re­war­ded for re­fus­ing to ne­go­ti­ate.”

But that doesn’t mean he has ill words for the 28 Re­pub­lic­ans who voted for the clean bill. “They de­serve prob­ably the red badge of cour­age or something like that. They took a hit for the team,” Cole said. “But this is something Demo­crats wanted and they got what they wanted.”

In con­trast to re­cent debt ceil­ing fights, con­ser­vat­ives largely wer­en’t call­ing for a knock down drag out fight. “What I’ve heard from oth­er mem­bers is that this is not go­ing to be the hill that they’re go­ing to die on,” Rep. Michele Bach­mann has said.

House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aban­doned the dol­lar-for-dol­lar plan early on, wor­ried about the pro­spect of Sen­ate Demo­crats re­ject­ing the le­gis­la­tion. On Monday night, lead­er­ship floated the idea of at­tach­ing le­gis­la­tion to re­verse un­pop­u­lar re­duc­tions in mil­it­ary re­tir­ees’ pen­sions, hop­ing to at­tract Demo­crats as well as their own mem­bers.

But a luke­warm re­cep­tion from rank-and-file Re­pub­lic­ans and as­sur­ances from Demo­crats and the pres­id­ent that they would not ac­cept any­thing but a clean debt lim­it in­crease, forced Re­pub­lic­ans to back off.

Des­pite the saga that led to fi­nal House vote, in­clud­ing weeks of float­ing sweeten­ers for an in­crease, no one was in a fight­ing mood on Tues­day. The House Rules Com­mit­tee hear­ing on the debt ceil­ing rule opened and closed at light­en­ing-speed. Rank­ing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Louise Slaughter entered the hear­ing room and said, “let’s call a quor­um and get this over with.”

The bill now heads to the Sen­ate, and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has said he will move the le­gis­la­tion “as quickly as we can.” Pres­id­ent Obama has already in­dic­ated that he would sign a in­crease in the na­tion’s debt lim­it, as long as House Re­pub­lic­ans agreed not to at­tach any strings to the le­gis­la­tion.

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