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 the 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 Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But even the Republican leadership was divided on this issue; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, voted against the measure.
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.
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 the 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.
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.