The House Tuesday narrowly voted in favor of increasing the nation's $17.2 trillion debt limit, relying on a majority of Democrats to carry the measure to passage after a nail-biter of a roll call.
Republicans have been struggling for days to come up with an agreement among themselves that would set the terms of raising the debt limit ahead of a Feb. 27 deadline imposed by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
The bill passed Tuesday includes no additional conditions. It simply suspends the debt limit until March 2015, well after the critical midterm election, putting aside contentious intra- and inter-party fighting over government spending.
The vote was 221-201 and the “no” votes included the vast majority of Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is the co-author of the bipartisan budget agreement that sets federal spending.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where, according to top GOP aides, it is expected to pass on Wednesday, ahead of a potentially crippling winter storm.
House Republicans had hoped to attach conditions to the debt ceiling legislation that, in exchange for allowing more borrowing, would either require reduced federal spending or enact another top GOP priority, such as a requirement that President Obama approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.
But none of the “add-ons” the GOP leadership offered its conference won enough support to guarantee the 218 votes needed for passage.
The rank-and-file balked at an attempt to lure GOP votes with a provision that would have suspended planned cuts to military pensions, arguing that it would put them in a politically dangerous position. Boehner stripped out the language and the House voted on it separately.
With nothing left to offer his own members that could win 218 Republican votes, Boehner had no choice but to offer a deal that the Democratic minority could pass with a majority of their caucus.
Democrats were insisting on a “clean” debt ceiling increase, with no provisions attached, and that’s what Boehner put on the House floor.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Ohio, a member of the leadership, said Boehner “was in a very tough box.”
Lankford, who voted against the bill, said Boehner was stuck between leading the entire House, as the speaker, and appeasing his own conference.
“This is not fun for him, to say the least,” Lankford said.
Boehner had long pledged that he would not let the nation default on its debt, and the GOP is still bruised from the last spending fight in October.
At that time, Boehner acquiesced to his right flank and agreed to attach to the government spending bill provisions that would have defunded the health care law. The result was a 16-day government shutdown that voters largely blamed on the GOP.
This time, Boehner wasn’t taking any chances with a stalled debt ceiling bill, which would have badly rattled markets and almost certainly would have caused another plummet in the polls for the GOP, which is gearing up for the 2014 elections.
“Obviously,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said, “the government shutdown had its impact.”
Republican senators appeared resigned to the deal, though most of them said they would not vote for it because it includes none of the debt- and deficit-reducing measures the GOP usually insists upon when granting the Treasury a borrowing increase.
Democrats will likely need five GOP votes to clear a critical procedural hurdle, and GOP aides predicted passage.
“The reality is, the House of Representatives was not going to pass anything else,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. “And we have to come to grips with that reality.”