WASHINGTON-Is it just a coincidence that Washington suffered through its hottest month in recorded history while federal lawmakers spent the month of July in an extremely heated debate over the future of the nation's finances?
Regardless, the long summer showdown over the federal government's borrowing power ends today. But conservatives in- and outside of Capitol Hill are hoping that this is just one round in a larger battle over the government's spending habits.
In a 74-26 vote, the Senate Tuesday passed legislation to increase the nation's debt ceiling, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law a little over an hour later.
"This bill does not solve the problem," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor just before the vote. "But it forces Washington to admit that it has one."
In typical, last-minute Washington fashion, this endgame compromise comes on the very day, Aug. 2, that government officials predicted the nation would default on its debts for the first time ever.
But McConnell insisted that the messy drama lawmakers displayed in July does not prove that Washington isn't working: "The push and pull Americans saw in Washington these past few weeks was not gridlock. It was the will of the people working itself out in a political system that was never meant to be pretty. You see, one reason America isn't already facing the kind of crises we see in Europe is that presidents and majority parties here can't just bring about change on a dime, as much as they might like to from time to time. That's what checks and balances is all about."
McConnell said the winners of this debate are the voters who last November put more conservatives in Washington.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in his own speech before the vote, said that "the Tea Party direction of this Congress these last few months has been very, very disconcerting and very unfair to the American people."
Prior to the Senate vote, the economic uncertainty surrounding the aftereffects of a predicted default spurred a very divided House to approve the debt deal Monday night.
Sixty-six Republicans, including presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and half the chamber's Democrats opposed the measure. Among the high-profile freshman Republican class, 28 voted against the deal. But the more telling statistic is that 59 freshmen-two-thirds of the class-supported the legislation, meaning that they sided with House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican establishment over the demands of the volatile Tea Party. The sustained Tea Party opposition throughout the debt-ceiling debate could mean that many of these freshmen may find themselves facing reelection opposition from the very group that swept many of them into office last year.
The House vote included a surprise appearance by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Casting her first vote since a January shooting nearly took her life, Giffords received a standing ovation as she voted yes on the bill.
As for the deal, it provides an initial $400 billion boost in the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit. An additional $500 billion increase is guaranteed this fall. This $900 billion jump in the borrowing cap must be matched with $900 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.
A special bipartisan committee, established by this bill, would then find up to $1.5 trillion more in deficit cuts, to be matched with another borrowing increase to be voted upon later this year.
Boehner and other Republican leaders are celebrating the unprecedented matching of spending cuts with an increase in the nation's debt. They also scored a victory by blocking any of the tax increases sought by Democrats. And, in a key concession to the freshmen class, the bill mandates that Congress must hold votes this year on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
While the current makeup of Congress lacks the supermajority needed to send this amendment to the states for final approval, Republicans hope that having a vote on the record will provide valuable ammunition during next year's election when the GOP will try to take control of the Senate.
Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman Republican from Arizona, took pains, like many freshmen did, to explain his support of the debt deal to a skeptical Tea Party public. "Our nation's debt and spending crisis is like a super tanker," he said in a statement released soon after the House vote Monday night. "In order to change direction even slightly, the captain has to start the maneuver miles ahead of time. The current bill is a change in direction. But we cannot stop this 'supertanker of debt' tonight, in one vote."
But another freshmen, Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp, depicted the deal as being another example of Washington's tricks and gimmicks. "These are paltry cuts compared to the $14.3 trillion in debt we already have, and the $7 trillion in new debt we can expect in the next decade," he said, adding that he is frustrated that lawmakers were asked to vote in the eleventh hour for a bill that the public had less than a day to read. "The culture of fiscal irresponsibility may not have been created by this Congress, but we were sent here to put an end to it. I'm afraid this bill does not rise to that occasion."
But the concerns of congressional Republicans have been mild compared to their protests last week leading up to a Boehner-drafted compromise that failed in the Senate.
And on the other side of the aisle, since Obama announced the final deal Sunday night, some of the biggest cries of anger have come from his liberal base. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said the compromise "may be the single worst piece of public policy to ever come out of this institution." She added in a House floor speech Monday, "Democrats conceded time after time, provision after provision on this deal. These cuts will be loaded onto the backs of seniors and the American middle class."
Vice President Joe Biden spent time on Capitol Hill Monday trying to rally Democratic support for the deal. But the resentment of the most liberal wing of Democrats and its clear disappointment in Obama could reverberate thorough the rest of this congressional session.
In the end, a deal that disappoints a wing of conservatives and upsets a wing of liberals was likely the most realistic outcome in such a divided Congress. The lasting legacy of this often-acrimonious debate is that some Republicans and Democrats did finally unite in forcing some spending cuts. Since the congressional session began in January, lawmakers have secured an almost 8 percent reduction in spending over the next 10 years.
"This is a down payment on the problem," said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the House Budget Committee. "It's a good step in the right direction. And it is a huge cultural change to this institution. Both parties got us in this mess; both parties are going to have to work together to get us out."