UPDATE (5:45 p.m.): The House voted 221-201 late Tuesday afternoon to raise the debt ceiling, with 28 Republicans voting yes. The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to vote on Wednesday.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: WASHINGTON—House Republicans have abandoned plans to attach conditions to a debt limit increase and will vote to raise the nation’s borrowing limit again without demanding spending cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Republican leadership simply didn’t have the votes needed to package any deal with the latest debt limit bill. Boehner and others had pitched a proposal to include a measure restoring recent cuts to military pension plans. While that did not cut spending, some Republicans hoped it would provide a boost to lawmakers in an election year. But enough fiscal conservatives in the GOP balked at the plan, calling it too modest. That caused Boehner to capitulate and call up the “clean” debt bill.
With snow threatening to paralyze the nation later this week, the House likely will vote on the measure as soon as Tuesday evening. It will need support from a majority of House Democrats to pass.
The move by the Republican leadership reflects a retreat from an informal rule Boehner has followed since becoming speaker: No increase in the debt ceiling without offsetting it with equal or greater cuts in federal spending. Boehner said he was “disappointed to say the least” about backing away from this commitment.
It represents a stark change from debt ceiling battles during the last three years, when Republicans tried to force millions in cuts each time the government reached the debt ceiling. Those who back Boehner’s move say it spares Republicans from a protracted battle heading into the mid-term elections. Some lawmakers seem to have “lost the stomach for brinksmanship” as one unnamed Republican told The Washington Post.
“It’s the fact that we don’t have 218 votes,” Boehner told reporters Tuesday after a private meeting with fellow House Republicans. The 218 votes is the minimum number needed to pass a bill in the current House. “And when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
The lack of support in that morning meeting for tying a rollback of $6 billion in military pension cuts to the debt limit hike led to Boehner’s backpedaling.
“Our members are not crazy about voting to increase the debt ceiling,” Boehner said.
Now Republicans will try to force their opponents to own the debt ceiling increase, starting with House Democrats and including President Barack Obama.
“He (Obama) is the one who’s driving up this debt, and the question they’re asking is, ‘why should I deal with his debt limit,’” Boehner said, referring to House Republicans. “And so the fact is we’ll let the Democrats put the votes up. We’ll put a minimum number of votes up to get it passed.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said most of the 200 Democrats would vote for the debt limit hike. Assuming that all the Democrats vote for the bill, 17 Republicans will need to join them.
“We’re going to have to find them,” Boehner said. “I’ll be one of them.”
Hoyer, during his press conference, relished the difficulty the Republicans were having in getting the votes. “Isn’t that pathetic,” he said repeatedly, banging his fist on a table. His theatrics suggest that the Democrats are more than willing to take ownership of the increase.
But it wasn’t too long ago, 2009 in fact, when Democrats ran the House and had to negotiate debt limit increases with conservative members from their own party. Then a group of fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats insisted that a nearly $2 trillion debt limit increase had to include codifying rules designed to limit federal spending. But the notion of a fiscally conservative Democrat has all but vanished since then. In today’s Washington, a Republican who is a staunch fiscal conservative is considered “hard right.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned the government would hit its spending limit again on Feb. 27. This new measure, expected to easily pass the Senate if it clears the House, would authorize new borrowing through March 2015—well after this fall’s elections.
But Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, and other conservative groups opposed to the bill will try and make sure voters won’t forget this vote.
Heritage argues that the measure does not just increase the debt but suspends the limit altogether, giving the Obama administration a “blank check” to borrow for an entire year. This unchecked borrowing comes at a time when the debt is at nearly $17.3 trillion—more than $140,000 for every American household.
Still, the move will be considered a victory in the Obama White House. The president has insisted often that he only supports “clean” spending limit increases.
“I hope the tactic of threatening default for budget debates is over, off the table and never to happen again,” Gene Sperling, the director of the White House National Economic Council, said during a reporter breakfast on Tuesday.
Underscoring the wackiness of the day, Boehner entered his midday press conference claiming he was “happy, happy, happy.” Then he left the conference singing and whistling “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the popular Disney song.
Listen to Nick Eicher’s report on the House vote on The World and Everything in It: