WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a yearlong increase in the nation’s borrowing limit Wednesday, settling until well after this year’s congressional elections an issue that had triggered three years of gridlock and confrontation between the White House and congressional Republicans.
The final 55-43 vote on the debt limit was on straight party lines, with 53 Democrats and two independents voting for it and 43 Republicans against. Hints of a conservative filibuster faded when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, declined to mount one.
The debt ceiling approval extends the government’s borrowing authority until March 2015, allowing it to borrow more money to pay for spending that’s already been approved. It’s the first time in three years that the debt ceiling issue has been resolved without brinksmanship from Republicans demanding concessions for its approval.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called it an important milestone.
“It is the least that Congress can and should do, and in this case, Republicans in Congress can and should do on behalf of their constituents, which is not to throw the American or global economy into chaos,” Carney said.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned this week that the nation most likely would start running short of money to pay its bills on Feb. 27 unless the debt limit was raised. That could cause a default that would hurt the economy and trigger a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, which might increase the cost of further borrowing.
The House of Representatives passed the debt ceiling increase Tuesday after Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, allowed it to reach the floor over the objections of tea party groups. Just 27 other Republicans joined Boehner in voting for the measure, but that was enough to assure it would pass along with the support of 193 Democrats.
The votes are a fresh signal that the tea party’s clout has waned significantly. The grass-roots movement that helped elect 87 House Republican freshmen in 2010 and give the party control of the House continues to cajole and threaten dissenters, but most Republicans no longer fear it.
Their mood has shifted since the 16-day partial government shutdown in October. That tea party-inspired strategy backfired politically, sending congressional approval ratings to single digits – and leaving Republicans with much of the blame.
A McClatchy-Marist Poll this week found congressional Democrats with a 33 percent approval rating, but Republicans at 22 percent.
In December, Boehner sent a strong signal that he no longer would be swayed by hard-core conservative interest groups. Since then, the House has passed – with strong Democratic support – a two-year budget package, as well as major legislation on agriculture and defense policy.
This week it was the debt limit increase, the passage of which led hard-line conservatives groups to howl. “Unless we install a new leader who will actually go on offense, Democrats will never fear us and we will never have any leverage,” the Senate Conservatives Fund said as it urged replacing Boehner.
Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth urged a no vote on raising the debt ceiling and warned that they’d include it on their “legislative scorecards” that go to voters.
“Without a debt limit, all control over borrowing decisions shifts to the treasury secretary, who is appointed by the president,” said Heritage Action’s Romina Boccia. “Effectively, this concentrates borrowing authority in the executive branch, and hands the president a blank check to borrow against the U.S. taxpayer.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he couldn’t support the measure. “This clean debt-ceiling increase will grow nothing but the debt,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said defaulting on the nation’s bills would devastate the economy.
“Financial industry leaders have warned Congress again and again that even the threat of default ripples quickly through the economy,” he said.
The crucial test for the debt limit came in a tense vote to shut off a threatened filibuster. Republicans have long been reluctant to approve an increase without some strings attached, such as assurances of spending cuts.
Many were torn. They wanted to avoid a politically damaging confrontation with the White House, which wanted a “clean” debt limit increase without any conditions, but they’ve railed for years against a higher ceiling.
So on the key procedural vote, which limited debate, 12 Republicans joined the 53 Democrats and two independents to total more than the needed 60 to limit debate, but only after an hourlong vote – three times as long as usual – that involved a lot of intense lobbying on the Senate floor.
The votes in favor included the top two Republicans in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. They, along with the other 10 Republicans, wound up voting against raising the debt limit for a year.
Cruz had threatened the filibuster, but in the end he didn’t even use the limited amount of time he was allowed to publicly debate the bill.
“I intend to object to any effort to raise the debt ceiling on a 50-vote threshold. I will insist instead on a 60-vote threshold, and if Republicans stand together we can demand meaningful spending restraint to help pull our nation back from the fiscal and economic cliff,” Cruz said in a statement.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong number of Democrats who voted for the measure in the House of Representatives.