Behind the scenes of a dramatic debt vote
By: Manu Raju and Burgess Everett
February 12, 2014 06:57 PM EST
Sen. Ted Cruz and the GOP rank and file ultimately backed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn into a corner on the debt ceiling increase.
The leaders had wanted to allow the toxic measure to pass with just 51 votes so all 45 Republicans could vote against it. But Cruz, the Texas tea party freshman, demanded approval by a 60-vote threshold.
So McConnell and Cornyn tried to persuade more than five Republicans in safe seats to support the effort, but they were met with stiff resistance. No Republican wanted to be vote No. 60 to advance a bill to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts, forcing the GOP leaders to secure a comfortable margin of victory or risk being blamed for a historic debt default.
(Also on POLITICO: Senate passes debt ceiling bill)
Miffed that they have long been asked to take tough votes when the GOP leaders voted “no,” Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski, privately pressured McConnell and Cornyn to vote to break the filibuster, sources said. Murkowski resisted voting for the measure without the support of her leadership team.
As the drama grew in the chamber with the vote’s prospects in doubt, McConnell turned to his colleagues and said: “We’re not doing this again,” according to a source familiar with his remarks.
So McConnell and Cornyn — both facing reelection this year and battling tea party-inspired challengers in their states — took the plunge and risked the political backlash by voting to break a filibuster, the type of vote the two wily leaders have long sought to avoid in this election season.
After hoping the measure passed without their fingerprints, McConnell and Cornyn were forced to own part of it by allowing it to move to a final vote with their consent, even persuading several of their colleagues to switch their votes. The leaders later voted against final passage. But McConnell decided not to block the measure because he concluded it wasn’t worth repeating yet another crisis-like atmosphere similar to the government shutdown last fall.
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The end result: 12 Republicans voted to break a filibuster, advancing the measure on a 67-31 vote. On a party-line vote, the Senate passed the bill, 55-43, sending it to President Barack Obama’s desk and ending three years of partisan brinkmanship and economic crises over debts and deficits.
The last-minute scramble shows just how rapidly debt politics have turned on the Republican Party. After winning big in the 2010 elections, a conservative House majority and emboldened Senate minority vowed to extract major concessions from the White House to raise the national debt ceiling and keep government agencies funded. The consequences of those demands, however, continually fell short of tea-party expectations and ultimately culminated in the 16-day government shutdown in October, a political black eye for the GOP.
“I must say that it was a very courageous act, especially Sen. McConnell, who — as you well know — is in a very tough race,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted to advance the measure after initially saying he would oppose it.
Eager to avoid another crisis after the GOP-led House barely passed the clean debt ceiling increase Tuesday evening, Senate Republican leaders wanted a drama-free Wednesday.
But the vote proved to be anything but quick and easy.
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The 45-member Senate Republican Conference met over lunch behind closed doors in the Senate’s ornate Mansfield Room, debating how to proceed for more than 90 minutes but reaching no consensus.
Starting the vote more than 10 minutes late, the outcome was still unclear after the conference engaged in its first real debate about how to proceed in the aftermath of the House’s decision to pass a “clean” debt ceiling bill Wednesday evening.
That internal debate spilled into open view on the Senate floor. A grim-faced McConnell stood next to the white-haired Cornyn, who quietly discussed a way forward with Murkowski, Collins, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and a handful of other senators. Tension filled the room as the vote was kept open for more than an hour. The clerks were informed not to announce the names of the senators who had voted, allowing the leaders to urge senators to switch their votes.
With time running out as the vote was held open, McConnell and Cornyn huddled repeatedly with their colleagues and staff on the floor. They sent Corker, who voted to break the filibuster, into the cloakroom to round up more votes.
Forty-five minutes into a vote, which typically takes about 15 minutes, Cornyn and McConnell approached the well of the Senate and simultaneously signaled that they would vote “aye.” The press gallery let out an audible gasp. The two men sent their emissaries into the GOP cloakroom to cajole GOP senators to switch their votes to run up the tally and give them political cover.
In addition to McConnell, Cornyn and Corker, the two men won the support of perennial swing votes of Collins, Murkowski and Mark Kirk of Illinois. A retiring senator, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, backed the effort to break the filibuster.
Collins embraced a stone-faced Cornyn on the floor after his vote and thanked him for his support.
And McConnell urged several Republicans who planned to vote “no” to ultimately switch their votes, including McCain, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona and two members of the GOP leadership — John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming. Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Jerry Moran of Kansas were the two GOP members of McConnell’s leadership team to vote against it.
“It’s been a long-held position of mine that you shouldn’t do that with some behavioral change,” said Blunt, who was buttonholed on the floor by McConnell but wouldn’t change his vote. “But I’m certainly not critical of anybody else for what they decided.”
Leaving the chamber, Cornyn downplayed his vote to end the filibuster, which is already being used by his main GOP opponent, Rep. Steve Stockman, ahead of the March primary.
“All Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling and that was the main event; I think everything else was sort of window dressing,” Cornyn said. “It wasn’t a tough decision to have an up-or-down vote. And I think that is a growing consensus on our side. Distracting from the differences between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to debt and spending would be a mistake. I think the vote provided the kind of clarity and definition that was accurate.”
Matt Bevin, McConnell’s primary opponent, tweeted an image of a blank check addressed to the president and signed by McConnell.
McConnell and his office had not issued a public comment by Wednesday evening.
Cruz, an architect of the shutdown fight who forced the 60-vote threshold vote, was unapologetic about his tactics even after McConnell and several other Republican senators privately pushed back against his strategy. He acquiesced by allowing senators to hold the vote Wednesday and skip town ahead of a major snowstorm.
“It should have been a very easy vote,” Cruz said afterward. “In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together and said what every one of us tells our constituents back home, which is that we will not go along with raising the debt ceiling while doing nothing to fix the underlying out-of-control spending problem.”
What made the vote more difficult, Republicans said, was that they didn’t have enough time to forge a strategy, given that the House changed its tactics repeatedly and senators were rushing to catch their flights home ahead of the storm.
“The problem was we had this all of a sudden come from the House. I’m one that really felt like the House would attach something to it,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a former House member. “It really did make it difficult.”
Indeed, leaving a party lunch, several GOP senators planned to vote to sustain a filibuster, including McCain and Hatch, but later were persuaded to change course.
The “no” votes were piling up — even from some prospective swing votes.
“I’m not voting for cloture,” McCain said when asked how he’d vote as he entered the chamber.
McCain later said he voted yes because it was the “right thing to do.”
“There are many of us who certainly would like to see a different outcome,” McCain said. “But it’s obvious the House of Representatives wasn’t going to vote any different.”
Darren Goode contributed to this report.