WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted narrowly Tuesday to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, likely averting a potential default while also suggesting that the tea-party politics that drove the Republicans to three years of unified fiscal and budget showdowns has lost its clout.
The House approved the measure 221-201. Only 28 Republicans voted for it, with the rest of the support coming from Democrats. Conservative groups called it a sellout to even allow such a vote and demanded that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, be ousted.
The debt limit increase now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would move quickly to pass it.
“I commend Speaker Boehner for doing the right thing.” Reid said. “We hope this commonsense approach will continue throughout the year so we can actually get some things done.”
“Tonight’s vote is a positive step in moving away from the political brinkmanship that’s a needless drag on our economy,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
The expected approval would extend the government’s borrowing authority until March 2015, allowing it to borrow more money to pay for spending already approved. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned this week that the nation likely would start running short of money to pay its bills on Feb. 27 unless the debt limit were raised.
While the House vote avoided the kind of showdown that financial markets feared, it also signaled a surrender for Republicans, who wanted to demand concessions from the White House and congressional Democrats in return for the needed borrowing authority. They had been demanding such concessions ever since seizing control of the House in the 2010 elections, and brought the government to the brink of default before winning agreement for long term spending cuts in exchange for a sort term increase in the debt limit. In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that any increase in the debt ceiling would have to be offset with spending cuts in the future.
However, the Republican led shutdown of the government last year prompted a political backlash against the party, leaving Boehner openly reluctant to force another fiscal showdown even as he still sought concessions. Unable to rally enough Republican votes to pass a debt ceiling increase with some other demand, Boehner decided to let the House vote on a debt ceiling increase without any other demands, knowing it would attract Democratic votes but few Republican votes.
“It’s a disappointing moment, I can tell you that,” Boehner said.
Boehner blamed the White House for refusing to negotiate over the debt limit increase. The White House and congressional Democrats countered that America’s credit rating is not a matter for negotiation, and that lawmakers needed to pass the bill without conditions.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said the increased borrowing authority is necessary to pay for the budgets already passed with Republican support.
“Are we going to pay the nation’s bills or is the United States going to become a deadbeat nation?” she said.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., complained that few Republicans supported raising the debt limit. “That is a party that is rudderless,” he said.
House Republicans discussed and discarded several ideas for what to demand, including requiring the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline in return for approval of the borrowing authority.
Boehner presented a final proposal to his caucus at a Monday night meeting in the basement of the Capitol. His plan would have tied reversal of cuts to some military pensions to raising the borrowing authority. He couldn’t get enough conservative Republicans to agree.
“We don’t have 218 votes,” Boehner said after trying to convince his colleagues. “You don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
Boehner’s struggles reflect the divide within the Republican caucus and suggested open warfare over his leadership. Several conservative groups were circulating petitions late Tuesday urging that Boehner be replaced as the leader of the Republicans in the House.
“Unless we install a new leader who will actually go on offense, Democrats will never fear us and we will never have any leverage,” said one group, the Senate Conservatives Fund. “We need to show House Republicans that Americans expect more from them and want them to replace John Boehner.”
“When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt ceiling increase we thought it was a joke,” said an email from the anti-tax group Club for Growth. “But it’s not. . . . Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, voted against the debt limit increase, saying he couldn’t support a measure that didn’t help to lessen the nation’s deficit.
“This doesn’t address the underlying problem” Barton said. “We simply say that we want to borrow.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said she wanted to see changes in the new health care law in return for raising the debt limit. She voted against it.
“This is not the vote we wanted to see,” Bachmann said.
But other lawmakers said Boehner had no choice because of the reality of the divided Republican caucus and the need to avoid a default in the nation’s debt. Boehner said he wished it could be different.
“This is a lost opportunity,” Boehner said.
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