WASHINGTON (CNN) — A divided U.S. House voted Tuesday to let the government borrow enough money to pay its bills for the next year, sending the measure to the Senate in an effort by Republican leaders to avoid another politically damaging legislative impasse over spending.
In the 221-201 vote, less than three dozen of the majority House Republicans joined almost all of the chamber’s 200 Democrats to pass the proposal increasing the debt ceiling that lacked any deficit-reduction provisions sought by the GOP’s conservative wing.
The vote followed a reversal in strategy by Republican House Speaker John Boehner after he and other leaders pushed the night before to attach a provision repealing cuts to military pensions to the debt limit measure.
President Barack Obama and Democrats rejected any negotiation on what they called the responsibility of Congress to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States by ensuring sufficient borrowing authority to meet all obligations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the House vote “a positive step in moving away from the political brinkmanship that’s a needless drag on our economy.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said last week the debt ceiling must be raised by February 27, or the nation would risk a technical default.
A Senate vote could come as soon as Tuesday night or on Wednesday, hastened to beat a possible major winter storm expected to hit the region on Wednesday night.
GOP change in tactics
Until Tuesday, House Republicans insisted that any increase in the borrowing limit had to come attached to deficit-reduction provisions.
At a closed-door meeting on Monday, they discussed a plan to increase the debt ceiling until March 2015 — past the upcoming congressional elections in November — while also repealing cuts to military pensions that were part of the recently passed federal budget.
Less than 18 hours later, though, Boehner told reporters the GOP proposal couldn’t pass because “we don’t have 218 votes, and when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
Some conservatives oppose raising the debt ceiling under any circumstance, while Democrats have made it clear they would unanimously reject any measure that tacked other provisions onto an increase in the borrowing limit.
Without a purely Republican majority, Boehner decided to split up the GOP plan by holding separate votes on repealing the military pension cuts and a clean debt ceiling increase.
The House easily passed the military pension measure earlier on Tuesday, sending it the Senate for further consideration.
In the later vote on the debt ceiling, only 28 of the 227 Republicans who voted wound up siding with 193 Democrats to pass it, while 199 Republicans and two Democrats opposed it.
Boehner earlier told reporters he would vote for it, and his top deputy — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — also supported the measure.
Some Republicans not sure
Republicans facing pressure from conservatives ahead of the November vote were reluctant to back any kind of hike in the borrowing limit, a core issue for the political right because it represents rising federal debt.
Despite his support for the proposal, Boehner put the blame for needing a “clean” debt-ceiling bill with no deficit reduction provisions on Obama, saying the rising federal debt was his fault.
“It’s the President driving up the debt and the President wanted to do nothing about the debt that’s occurring, will not engage in our long-term spending problem,” Boehner said. “And so, let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants.”
At the same time, Boehner declared himself disappointed about what he called a “lost opportunity” to address unsustainable federal spending.
In the Senate, GOP leaders urged against a filibuster of a clean debt-ceiling bill by their colleagues.
By refraining from a filibuster, which would require 60 votes to overcome, the Senate’s 45 Republicans can oppose the increase in the borrowing limit without getting accused of obstructing the 55-member Democratic caucus from passing it.
However, GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a leader of the conservative tea party wing in Congress, said Tuesday he would filibuster the measure to force a 60-vote threshold.
Senate leaders had wanted to vote on the debt ceiling plan no later than Wednesday, before the arrival of the storm. It was unclear if Cruz’s threatened filibuster would prevent an immediate vote from taking place.
If Congress doesn’t pass a debt ceiling measure Wednesday, further action was unlikely until February 25 — two days before the Treasury chief’s deadline — because of a shortened congressional work schedule in coming weeks due in part to the Presidents Day break.
Republicans across the ideological spectrum agree that another round of political brinksmanship could harm their party after it got blamed for October’s federal government shutdown.
A recent CNN/ORC International poll found that 54% of respondents would blame congressional Republicans for a failure to raise the debt ceiling, while 29% would blame Obama and 12% would blame both.
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