No Default

02.12.14

Senate Raises Debt Ceiling After GOP 'Dysfunction'

The Senate overcame procedural obstacles thrown up by Ted Cruz to pass a clean increase in the debt ceiling on Wednesday.

The debt ceiling won’t be breached but the stress levels of Republican senators? Those went through the roof on Wednesday.

After the House of Representatives passed a clean debt ceiling increase on Tuesday, it was almost inevitable that the Senate would do the same.  The only suspense was whether Ted Cruz was going to make it easy for his fellow Republicans. He didn’t.

Cruz pushed for the cloture process to require 60 votes to end debate and then proceed to a final vote on the bill, rather than simply allowing debt ceiling to be raised by a majority vote. The result was a period of chaos in the Senate. Initially, Senate Republicans were short one vote to prevent default. After the vote was held for an hour, 12 Republicans ended up voting to end debate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn, and thus allow a final vote on the bill, which then passed 55-43 along party lines. 

Many of Cruz’s fellow Republicans were befuddled why he called for cloture in the first place.  Tennessee Senator Bob Corker criticized the Cruz strategy because “there was no endgame there.” While Corker joined the rest of his caucus in voting against final passage, he saw no point in voting against cloture.  “We know what the outcome is,” said Corker. The cloture vote about debating it further, didn’t see any proposals out there that had another outcome, it seemed to me the responsible thing to do” to vote for cloture. 

Sen Mike Johanns (R-NE) shared Corker’s disdain for the strategy or lack thereof of cloture opponents. “What’s the other strategy? Default? See how the world reacts to that? See what the stock market does?” The retiring Nebraska senator saw no alternative to raising the debt ceiling “you can’t run away, it’s reality.” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) agreed with this approach, emphasizing that we need to have “an orderly administration of US debt.”

Others like Senator Lindsey Graham, who voted against cloture, were simply frustrated at how badly the politics of the debt limit increase had been handled. “It’s one thing to get hit by a speeding train” said the two-term South Carolina senator. “We get hit by slow moving trucks.” He seemed befuddled the politics of the situation left no alternatives open for the GOP. “How do you wind up where you don’t have a coordinated strategy between House and Senate over something where public is literally with you and you can see coming for months?” Graham though didn’t name any specific villains. When asked who was responsible, he said “we all are and none of us are.”

Democrats though simply shook their heads at what Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) described as “dysfunction.” The first term Senator, who was appointed in 2012 to replace the late Daniel Inouye, told The Daily Beast “I think whatever plan [the GOP] had wasn’t executed very well and wasn’t thought through very well in the first place. They should have never required a 60-vote threshold having not figured out if they could supply their measly five votes to keep the full faith and credit of the United States.”

But eventually, Republicans buckled down and bit the bullet as even Senators who told reporters earlier that they would vote against cloture, like Arizona Senator John McCain, changed their minds to avoid default. As Corker described the situation “Look, you know, what needed to get done got done and a lot of people stepped up and did what they knew needed to get done and probably what the entire caucus knew what needed to be done. I’m thankful that they finally did” 

The big turning point in the vote seemed to be when both McConnell and Cornyn supported the cloture vote. At that point, many wavering Republicans seemed to rally around their leaders. Corker told reporters that McConnell and Cornyn's support didn’t break the "dam" keeping many Republicans from supporting cloture but admitted “well, the dam was crumbling.”

Cruz seemed to take pleasure in making his fellow Republicans take such a hard vote. The Texas Republican told reporters after the vote “There is value in candor and clarity with the American people. Each senator, each representative makes a decision how he or she will vote and when those votes are clear to constituents democracy works far better.” In particular, he didn’t seem to mind putting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a tough spot. McConnell, who faces a well-funded Tea Party primary opponent and then has to face the most formidable general election challenge of any GOP incumbent, ended up voting to increase the debt limit, When asked if McConnell should continue as GOP leader in the Senate, Cruz told reporters “You know that is ultimately a decision in the first instance for the voters of Kentucky to make.” The Texas Senator then announced he wasn’t taking any more questions and walked away.

Congress won’t have to vote on another debt ceiling increase until 2015 but it doesn’t necessarily meant the era of political crises on Capitol Hill is over. As Johanns told the Daily Beast,  “In Washington there is no end to the brinkmanship.”