WASHINGTON – The House passed a no-frills debt ceiling increase on Tuesday despite heated opposition from the Republican Party’s conservative wing, leading some elements to demand the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner.
The final vote on what has been characterized as a “clean” debt ceiling measure – containing no amendments or attachments – was 221-215, with 28 Republicans joining all but two Democrats in favor of a bill that will permit the federal government to borrow the funds necessary to continue uninterrupted operations through March 15, 2015.
Among those opposing the measure was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and the unsuccessful Republican nominee for vice president in 2012. Ryan, with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, pieced together a two-year spending package, adopted in both chambers and signed by President Obama, that a raised debt ceiling will help fund. The entire GOP leadership team, led by Boehner and House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, supported the measure.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, already has said his caucus will avoid shutting down the federal government this go-round, a happenstance that occurred last November, much to the political detriment of the GOP. A vote is expected in the upper chamber sometime later this week and the bill is expected to pass.
The vote was a victory for the Obama White House, which has been warning that the failure to raise the debt limit could lead to a federal government unable to pay its bills, resulting in dire consequences.
Now the question hanging over the Capitol is what the vote means for Boehner (R-Ohio), who has alienated influential conservative groups in the past and now has pushed legislation opposed by his own caucus by more than 7-to-1. One of those influential groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund, dispatched an email to supporters calling for his ouster.
“Republicans are giving up because they know that winning is impossible when their leaders are determined to lose,” the message read. “These leaders have telegraphed weakness to the Democrats and sabotaged conservative efforts so many times that Republicans now have no leverage. There’s only one solution. John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House.”
Another group, the Tea Party Patriots, was equally dismissive.
“While Democrats are the driving force behind running up our national debt, growing the size of the federal government and wasting our money, all too often Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner, are happy to go along for the ride,” the group said on its website.
The group further noted the American people “are desperate for principled leadership in Washington, not ‘go-along-to-get-along’ capitulation. Sign the petition now! Then contact your Representative and tell them you are ready for real leadership. Tell them to fire the Speaker!”
FreedomWorks and RedState.com also are calling for Boehner’s removal from leadership. The speaker was not available for comment after the vote. Beforehand, Boehner asserted that passage of the bill represented a “lost opportunity.”
“We could have sat down and worked together in a bipartisan manner to find cuts and reform that are greater than increasing the debt limit,” he said. “I am disappointed, to say the least.”
Cantor remained on the offensive, maintaining that Republicans “are the only ones who acknowledge our debt crisis and have repeatedly attempted to help reverse the dangerous spending trend in Washington.”
“While controlling only one chamber of one branch, we’ve successfully cut spending and passed bills to encourage economic growth,” Cantor said. “It is clear that President Obama and congressional Democrats prefer to spend more, incur more debt and embrace a new normal of slow economic growth and joblessness, and that is unacceptable. House Republicans need more responsible and willing partners in Washington so we can finally and boldly address our long term debt crisis.”
Boehner resorted to a clean debt limit bill after he proved unable to convince a majority of his caucus on Monday evening to support a debt limit plan that included a GOP initiative to restore military pensions that were cut as a result of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement.
House GOP leaders have been hunting for a majority in the Republican caucus to support a debt limit bill for weeks, proposing earlier that provisions be inserted to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil sands to the Gulf Coast from Canada and repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
But all those efforts, including the military pension proposal, failed to garner the needed votes, with many GOP lawmakers voicing opposition to a debt ceiling increase under any circumstances. Unable to sway his caucus, Boehner bowed to minority Democrats, who insisted on a clean bill to win their support.
“We don’t have 218 votes,” the number needed to pass legislation in the 435-member House, Boehner told reporters. “When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
Even then, Boehner had to call on some Republican members to get the bill over the top. Many of the GOP lawmakers who voted for the legislation were committee chairmen who may have been concerned about placing their posts in jeopardy if they failed to support leadership on the vote.
Boehner felt compelled to act on the debt limit, currently set at $17.2 trillion, after receiving a letter from Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew informing him that the ceiling would be reached on Feb. 27 unless Congress acted.
The Treasury throughout its history has never reached the point of having insufficient funds to pay the nation’s debts, which would result in default. Congress has on occasion taken the situation to the brink – including late in 2013 – but has always pulled back to avoid the consequences.
If Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling it remains unclear whether the Treasury would be able to prioritize payments – sending available funds to cover the most important IOUs. Regardless, some obligations would go into default, triggering, according to economists, a financial crisis, a decline in the nation’s output and likely an immediate and deep recession.
Faced with a looming snowstorm and a scheduled two-week recess, Boehner decided to hold the vote Tuesday, with unlikely support coming from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California.
“The Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution declares that ‘the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law…shall not be questioned,’” Pelosi said. “That has always been the standard upheld and advocated by House Democrats. In each of my conversations with Speaker Boehner, I conveyed the support of the Democratic caucus for a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling.’’
Passage, Pelosi said, establishes “unequivocally that the full faith and credit of the United States is not in doubt. I thank my Democratic colleagues for never wavering from this position and for standing firm on behalf of all Americans.”