McConnell Helps Pass "Clean" Debt Ceiling Bill

McConnell Helps Pass "Clean" Debt Ceiling Bill
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After a dramatic vote in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, a "clean" bill to lift the debt ceiling for a year is now headed to President Obama's desk.

And it will arrive there with help from an unlikely source: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

While passage was ultimately expected in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber, how lawmakers would clear the key procedural hurdle of cloture was a major question mark minutes before the voting began.

Because GOP Sen. Ted Cruz objected to moving the bill forward on a simple majority, the initial vote required a 60-vote threshold -- meaning the measure would need support from at least five Republicans. GOP lawmakers, however, had concerns about putting their necks on the line for a bill that lacked any political or policy attachments in exchange for passage.

In a surprise move nearly 40 minutes in to the procedural vote, McConnell voted in favor of advancing the bill. Texas’ John Cornyn, the Republican whip, then joined him. Both senators are up for re-election in 2014, and McConnell faces challenges from both his left and right, heightening the pressure he faces on nearly every move he makes in the Senate.

His vote provided political cover, however, for other GOP members to vote yes and thus allowed the bill to reach 60 votes. Soon afterward, a group of Republican senators, including other members of the leadership team, emerged from the chamber cloakroom to change their votes to yes. Ultimately, 12 Republicans voted with all Democrats to move forward with the bill, which then passed on a party-line vote of 55-43.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans voted against final passage -- a point they will likely use in campaigns to ward off criticism.

As his conference’s leader, McConnell’s cloture move wasn’t all that extraordinary; in fact, it mirrored that of House Speaker John Boehner the day before. Still, the action turned heads given this year’s midterm year politics and the GOP’s past resistance to lifting the debt limit (a must-pass measure) without anything in return.

Given damage done to the party brand after the government shutdown in October, those twin votes reflect congressional Republicans’ intention to avoid further harm while maintaining GOP unity in opposing the health care law and focusing on the economy in the election year.

Though conservative outside groups protested the bill, there doesn’t appear to be a serious revolt among staunch conservatives in Congress, some of whom wouldn’t under any circumstance vote for a clean bill. (They did, however, encourage Boehner to move forward with this one to put the issue in the rear-view mirror).

Passage marked a significant victory for the president and Democrats, who have firmly refused to negotiate on legislation needed to pay incurred bills. In a statement after the vote, the president said he was “pleased that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come together to pay for what they’ve already spent, and remove the threat of default from our economy once and for all.” 

Boehner introduced the attachment-free bill on Tuesday, having exhausted efforts to get a majority of Republicans to support an alternative. The movement of the bill marked a significant departure from debt-limit debates of the past, when Congress fought to the edge of default over political and policy attachments.

With a major snowstorm set to hit Washington overnight, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acted on the bill quickly to enable lawmakers to leave town early.

Afterward, the upper chamber also passed a measure -- with bipartisan support -- to reverse benefits cuts to retired veterans under the age of 62. The cuts were part of the budget agreement passed at the end of last year, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been trying to restore them. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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