Debt ceiling suspension passes in Senate with help from Republican leadership

By Ellen Garrison and Preetisha Sen -- Medill News Service  |  Updated Feb. 12, 2014 at 6:00 PM
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WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed the bill to suspend the federal debt ceiling on Wednesday after a crucial 67-31 vote to end debate on the measure, with a flurry of support from Republican leadership.

The procedural vote for cloture, which requires a three-fifths majority to end debate, removed any risk of filibuster and led to an immediate Senate vote on the bill itself, which passed 55-43. In a surprising move, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted in support of cloture after huddling with other top Republicans on the Senate floor for more than 15 minutes. The 55 Senate Democrats needed five Republican votes to reach the three-fifths requirement to end debate on the bill and ultimately got 12.

Last week, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that the current debt ceiling -- or borrowing limit -- of $17.2 trillion, suspended since October, will be reached by the end of the month and asked Congress to take action. Without another suspension, the government would run out of funds and could be forced default on its debt.

Also included in the huddle of Republicans on the chamber floor was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who went into the chamber saying he would vote against the bill. He ended up voting in support of the measure, telling reporters he changed his mind because he “thought it was the right thing to do.”

A fellow Democrat drum-rolled on his desk in anticipation as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stood to close the vote after almost an hour. The vote was open for so long on the floor that Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left and returned to the chamber and tried to vote on the bill itself, only to realize the cloture vote was still open.

The House passed the bill 221-201 Tuesday, with 28 Republicans and 193 Democrats voting yes. Voting on a “clean” bill -- one without any amendments or strings attached -- prevented Republicans from trying to force concessions from Democrats, which caused the government to partially shut down for 16 days last October.

By voting on the debt limit now, before default is imminent, Congress is avoiding the political gridlock that proved unpopular with the American public last fall.

Despite efforts to reduce party politics by most Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that giving Obama “yet another blank check” was a mistake.

“This is wrong, and it’s irresponsible. Our parents didn’t do this to us, and we shouldn’t do it to our kids and our grandkids,” he said in a statement. Rather than suspend the debt limit, Cruz said, Congress should work to reduce the debt.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Republicans missed an opportunity to make structural adjustments to the budget. “I think most Americans are with us in the idea, ‘Don’t raise the debt ceiling without a plan to eventually get us out of debt,’” he told reporters. “How our party can’t coordinate on something that basic to who we are is a mistake.”

The legislation will now head to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature. For several months, Obama has asked Congress to take action and fulfill its responsibility to increase spending for the purpose of paying the nation’s bills.

“It is simply not necessarily a pleasant responsibility but one that Congress has to own, and that Republicans in Congress have to accept,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “They appropriate, they pass bills that require funding, they need to pay those bills. And that’s what raising the debt ceiling is about.”

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