GOP leaders ease vote to raise debt ceiling

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WASHINGTON -- Legislation to raise the federal debt limit and prevent a crippling government default cleared Congress on Wednesday with an awkward assist from top Senate Republican leaders, who were forced into a politically treacherous vote engineered by Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz.

The Texas Republican's maneuver forced several GOP colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., into a reluctant vote against a filibuster, helping the measure along. It's a vote likely to cause grief for Mr. McConnell, who is facing a primary election challenge.

On a day of legislative drama, the key vote clearing the way for final action was held open for more than an hour -- as the stock market looked on nervously -- and broke open only after Mr. McConnell and top lieutenant John Cornyn, R-Texas, unexpectedly voted "aye." Several other Republicans then switched their votes to support the measure, ultimately breaking the filibuster by a 67-31 margin.

The bill then passed the Senate by a near party-line 55-43 vote, with all of the yes votes coming from President Barack Obama's allies. "I'm 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," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

The president is now clear to sign the bill, which allows the government to borrow all the money it needs to pay bills such as Social Security benefits, federal salaries and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers. Failure to pass it would have likely sent the stock market -- which dipped modestly as the voting dragged on -- into a tailspin.

After the tally, Mr. Cruz said he had no regrets about his political maneuvers in opposition to the bill, saying the "Senate has given President Obama a blank check." As for forcing a difficult vote upon Mr. McConnell, Mr. Cruz said: "That is ultimately a decision ... for the voters of Kentucky." Mr. McConnell faces a primary election challenge from Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin and has been under sharp criticism from outside groups who say he isn't conservative enough.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was among those who appeared frustrated by the political theatrics.

"McConnell and Cornyn voted in a responsible way under the circumstances, and hopefully people will understand that McConnell, especially -- in an incredibly tough race, the toughest Republican race in the country -- had the courage to vote the way the vast majority understood needed to occur," said Mr. Corker, who voted with his leadership. "I've got to tell you, I think it shows tremendous courage on his part. ... A lot of people stepped up and did what they needed to do," he said of those who acted to let the must-pass legislation win final approval.

Congress has never failed to act to prevent a default on U.S. obligations, which most experts say would spook financial markets and cause a spike in interest rates. The government faced a potentially catastrophic default Feb. 27, and had Congress headed home for its weeklong Washington's Birthday break without addressing it, congressional Republicans again would have become the focus of a countdown toward disaster.

Conservatives were left infuriated by what they saw as an abdication of fiscal responsibility and began calling for the resignation of top congressional Republicans. Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said his group would redouble its efforts to replace the top two Republican leaders.

"Between the grass-roots frustration with Mitch McConnell and with [House Speaker] John Boehner, it's the perfect storm," Mr. Kibbe said.

Mr. Cruz, seeking deficit-reduction talks in exchange for the debt-ceiling increase, declared, "Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests, and the people who lost were the American people who find the fiscal and economic condition of this nation even worse because of a lack of leadership."

Had Cruz not mounted the filibuster, the debt-ceiling increase could have passed the Senate with only Democratic votes -- an outcome many Republicans wanted.

But he was unapologetic, even as many of his colleagues fumed that he had single-handedly forced his own leaders to take perhaps the most difficult vote of this election season. Mr. Cruz countered: "In my view, every Republican should stand together against raising the debt ceiling without meaningful structural reforms to rein in our out-of-control spending."

The same bill had passed the House on Tuesday after Republican leaders gave up efforts to hold up the debt-ceiling measure to win concessions from Mr. Obama on GOP favorites such as winning approval for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. "That's leadership," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Speaker Boehner made sure his party wasn't put at risk and the country wasn't put in peril. By taking the pain himself, there's a lot of gratitude in the conference."

Quick action on this latest debt-limit bill stands in contrast to lengthy showdowns in 2012 and last fall, when Republicans sought to use the must-pass legislation as leverage to win concessions from Mr. Obama. They succeeded in 2011, winning about $2 trillion in spending cuts. But Mr. Obama has been unwilling to negotiate over the debt limit since his re-election, and Wednesday's legislation is the third consecutive debt measure passed without White House concessions.

Republicans have been less confrontational since October's 16-day partial government shutdown sent GOP poll numbers skidding and chastened the party's Tea Party faction. Republicans have instead sought to focus voters' attention on the implementation and effects of Mr. Obama's health care law.

But most Republicans still say any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied by cuts to the spiraling costs of costly benefit programs such as Medicare. "We need some reform before we raise the debt ceiling. We need to demonstrate that we are taking steps that will reduce the accumulation of debt in the future," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the Budget Committee. "And the president and the Democratic Senate have just flatly refused. So they've just said, 'We'll accept no restraint on spending' "

Some Republicans seemed irked that Mr. Cruz wouldn't let the bill pass without forcing it to clear a 60-vote threshold that required some Republicans to help it advance. "I'm not going to talk about that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked about Mr. Cruz's tactics.

The debt measure permits Treasury to borrow regularly through March 15, 2015, putting the issue off until after the November elections and setting it up for the new Congress to handle next year.

If Republicans take over the Senate, they are likely to insist on linking the debt ceiling to spending cuts and other GOP agenda items. But for now at least, the issue is being handled the old-fashioned way, with the party of the incumbent president being responsible for supplying the votes to pass it and the minority party not standing in the way.

The New York Times contributed.

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