WASHINGTON — Three years of battling over the nation's debt and borrowing authority reached an anticlimactic end Wednesday, when the Senate approved with little debate and only minor delay a House-passed measure to suspend the debt ceiling until March 2015.
The increase was approved 55-43 on a strict party-line vote with only Democrats in support.
The bill includes no other conditions on spending or fiscal policy as President Obama requested. Congress also avoided a repeat of previous eleventh-hour showdown votes, sending the increase to the White House well before the Feb. 27 deadline.
Fiscal conservatives and Tea Party-aligned lawmakers expressed frustration. "Under President Obama, our national debt has increased from $10 trillion to $17 trillion, and now the president is asking for yet another blank check to keep increasing our debt without doing anything to reform Washington's spending problem," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "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 grandkids."
Cruz was one senator who insisted on requiring a 60-vote hurdle before allowing the Senate to vote on final passage by a simple majority vote. It took nearly an hour for Senate Republicans to muster the votes to cross that threshold, which they ultimately did, 67-31, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted to move forward along with a last-minute rally of support from GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota, and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
However, all Senate Republicans voted against the clean debt hike.
The nation's debt stands at about $17.2 trillion. The debt limit, the nation's borrowing authority, allows the government to borrow the money it needs to pay the bills it has already agreed to — not to authorize new spending. Republicans have previously used the fact that Congress must approve an increase to the nation's credit card limit to extract agreements to reduce spending, but there was little unity within the GOP this time around.
Passage was set in motion quickly after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Tuesday that the House would advance a debt ceiling increase with no policy items attached. Boehner said there was no consensus within the GOP ranks after weeks of haggling on what to ask for and how to to get it through a divided Congress. The bill was approved on the weight of Democratic votes.
With Senate Democrats already demanding a clean debt hike, passage in the upper chamber was assured after Republicans provided enough procedural votes to clear the path for an up-or-down vote.
The end result is a 2014 election year with no budget confrontations on the agenda. The two-year budget agreement reached in December, the "omnibus" spending bill approved in January, and today's debt limit closure together have eliminated the threat this year of debt defaults and partial government shutdowns, and instituted the closest thing to budgetary calm since the 2010 elections that divided control of Congress.
Congress reached a similarly quick accord this week to repeal a provision in December's budget agreement that reduced by 1% increases in cost of living adjustments for working age military veterans. The House overwhelming voted Tuesday to repeal it and pay for the $7 billion cost by extending for one year mandatory spending cuts under the sequester. The Senate approved the House bill 95-3 on Wednesday.