WASHINGTON – Unwilling to spook the markets and divided among themselves, House Republicans backed away from a battle over the government’s debt limit Tuesday and permitted President Barack Obama’s Democratic allies to drive quick passage of a measure extending Treasury’s borrowing authority without any concessions from the White House.
The 221-201 vote came hours after Speaker John Boehner announced that his fractured party would relent.
Just 28 Republicans voted for the measure, including Boehner and his top lieutenants. But 193 Democrats more than compensated for the low support among Republicans.
Senate Democrats hoped to vote on the legislation as early as today and send it to Obama for his signature.
The move was denounced by many conservative groups but came after most Republicans in the House made clear they had no taste for another high-stakes fight with Obama over the nation’s debt ceiling, which must be raised so the government can borrow money to pay all of its bills.
The bill would permit the Treasury Department to borrow normally for another 13 months, putting off the chance of a debt crisis well past the November elections and providing time for a newly elected Congress to decide how to handle the issue.
Just Monday, Republicans suggested pairing the debt measure with legislation to roll back a recent cut in the inflation adjustment of pension benefits for working age military retirees. Democrats insisted on a debt measure completely clean of unrelated legislation.
“The full faith and credit [of the United States] should be unquestioned and it is not negotiable,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The vote comes four months after Washington defused a government shutdown and debt crisis that burned Republicans politically – an experience they did not want to repeat.
The White House applauded Tuesday’s vote.
“Tonight’s vote is a positive step in moving away from the political brinkmanship that’s a needless drag on our economy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. He said Congress should now take additional steps to strengthen the economy and pressed efforts by Obama and Democrats to restore jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed and to increase the minimum wage.
Tuesday’s developments, which many Capitol Hill insiders saw coming, mark a reversal of the GOP’s strategy of trying to use the debt limit to force spending cuts or other concessions on Obama. The president yielded to such demands in 2011 – before his re-election – but has since boxed in Republicans by refusing to negotiate.
“I am disappointed that Democrats have walked away from the table,” said Dave Camp, R-Mich., the glum chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “But for as disappointed as I am, I cannot in good conscience let the Democrats’ refusal to engage, lead to a default.”
Boehner, R-Ohio, made the announcement after conservatives failed to rally around his latest plan, floated Monday, to tie lifting the debt ceiling to a measure to reverse cuts to military pensions that were enacted less than two months ago. Earlier plans to tie a debt cap increase to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or repeal of part of the new health care law failed as well, stymied by a group of hard line conservatives who vowed never to vote for increasing the government’s debt, which stands at more than $17 trillion.
The measure does not raise the debt limit by a set amount but would suspend it through March 15, 2015, to allow Treasury to borrow the money it needs to pay bills like Social Security benefits, payments on government debt and checks for federal workers.
The move reflects a return to the old ways of handling the politically tricky debt ceiling vote in which the president’s party is expected to carry most of the load to pass it.
“We’ll let the Democrats put the votes up,” the speaker said. “We’ll put a minimum number of (GOP) votes up to get it passed.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” said Vice President Joe Biden at the Capitol after swearing in the newest senator, John Walsh, D-Mont.
Only two Democrats, Scott Matheson of Utah and John Barrow of Georgia, broke with their party to vote against the bill. Republican ayes featured Northeastern moderates, Boehner loyalists and members who have announced they are retiring at the end of the year.
Boehner said his inability to assemble 218 GOP votes – enough to win a floor vote – for any debt limit plan left him no alternative but to turn to Democrats.
“When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” Boehner said. “We’ve seen that before and we see it again.”
Obama’s refusal to negotiate, GOP disunity, and Boehner’s determination to avoid the possibility of a market-cratering default on U.S. obligations gave the Ohio Republican little choice but to announce the vote on a “clean” debt ceiling increase.
“It’s disappointing but we have an intractable White House,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif. “This is a hard deal for us but it’s also important that we keep the country operating and the financial markets stable, so this is the thing we have to take until somehow there’s a change in attitude in the Senate or the White House or a change of occupancy of the Senate or the White House.”
The announcement amounted to resigned defeat for a party that has sought to use must-pass debt ceiling measures as leverage to force spending cuts on Democrats. Republicans won more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in a 2011 showdown but gave Obama two debt limit increases last year with only modest add-ons.
“The Democrats got burned when we negotiated and that led to the sequester, and we learned our lesson,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., referring to across-the-board spending cuts. “And the Republicans got burned when they shut the government down.”
The House voted 326-90 Tuesday on separate legislation to restore full cost-of-living increases that were to have been cut by 1 percent for retirees under 62. The cuts, which had just passed in December, were backed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Repealing them would cost $7 billion over the coming decade, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.
The reduction caused an uproar among advocates for veterans, and lawmakers in both parties are scrambling to repeal it.