WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, bowed to political reality on Tuesday and allowed a vote on a debt ceiling increase with no conditions attached despite strong resistance from the GOP rank and file and outside conservative forces.
The 'clean' debt measure suspends the nation's borrowing limit through March 15, 2015, and relied heavily on Democratic support to get it passed. The bill was approved, 221-201, with 193 Democrats and 28 Republicans voting to pass it.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, House Republican leaders floated a number of conditions to link to the debt vote, but nothing could garner enough support to pass with GOP votes alone.
"When you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing," Boehner told reporters on Tuesday. The final proposal GOP leaders floated would have tied the debt increase to a repeal of a minor cut to cost-of-living adjustments to the pensions of current working-age military retirees.
The House still approved the pension cut repeal in a separate vote, 326-90, on Tuesday.
President Obama and congressional Democrats have been calling for the debt limit increase to include no other conditions. Raising the debt limit does not authorize new spending, but rather allows the federal government to pay for the obligations it has already approved, which Democrats have said is a basic responsibility of governing, likening it to paying your credit card bill on time.
Republicans have countered that it's irresponsible to continue spending without implementing greater fiscal restraint. The nation's debt stands at about $17.2 trillion.
However, after the partial government shutdown last October — which left the GOP politically bruised— Boehner and other GOP leaders pledged that Congress would not allow a debt default. Without any internal GOP consensus on how to proceed on the latest debt ceiling increase, Boehner had few options but to allow an up-or-down vote.
During Boehner's tenure as speaker, congressional Republicans have waged battles over the debt limit under an informal rule advocated by the Ohio Republican that any increase in the debt limit should be met by equal or greater spending cuts or other savings. Tuesday's vote abandoned that standard. "I am disappointed to say the least," Boehner said.
Outside conservative and Tea Party groups — long at odds with the party establishment — ratcheted up their rhetoric opposing Boehner. The Senate Conservatives Fund circulated an online petition calling for Boehner to be replaced, while Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin said, "It is time for him to go." Neither Boehner nor his office has responded to the opposition groups.
The speaker instead said the burden should be on Democrats to pass the debt limit hike because President Obama has refused to engage with the GOP over how to reduce the deficit. "(President Obama) is the one driving up the debt. Then the question (Republicans) are asking is, 'Well, why should I deal with his debt limit?' And so the fact is we'll let the Democrats put the votes up," he said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., pushed back against Boehner's comments that Democrats were driving up the debt and should shoulder the burden to increase it. "I think it is pathetic that the speaker of the House of Representatives, the leader of his party, cannot get (the votes) for something he says is absolutely essential to do. That is a party that is rudderless and should be rejected by the American people."
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said the government will hit its borrowing limit on Feb. 27. The Senate could act as early as Wednesday to approve the House-passed debt bill, but a vote could be delayed until after the Presidents Day week-long break.
The debt vote could be one of the last must-pass measures ahead of the midterm elections. Unless Congress approves all of its annual spending bill by Sept. 30, lawmakers will also need to pass a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running at the end of the fiscal year. Otherwise, there is little consensus within the divided Congress on other legislation to advance this year.