Moderates to the Rescue on Debt Ceiling

The House voted 221-201 last night to pass a clean, yearlong debt ceiling increase. The measure, which raises the government’s borrowing limit through March 2015, passed with 193 Democratic votes and 28 Republican votes. Earlier in the day, Speaker John Boehner informed House Republicans that he intended to bring a no-strings-attached debt ceiling bill to the floor and pass it on the backs of a united House minority. His decision was final and, in his opinion, for the good of the party. House Democrats and a handful of Republicans would vote to raise the debt ceiling, and conservative opponents would simply have to accept defeat. Tellingly, the measure received the fewest number of votes from majority party members on a bill that passed the House since at least 1991.

In addition to riling conservatives, the vote split Republican House leaders. The 28 Republicans who voted in favor of the bill included Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam. The Speaker rarely votes, so it is interesting to note that Boehner chose to go on record in support of the bill. The bill was also supported by a handful of moderates, and a few retiring Republicans.

Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union), Conference Vice-Chair Lynn Jenkins, Conference Secretary Virginia Foxx, Policy Committee Chair James Lankford, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Greg Walden all voted no. And while several committee chairs voted in favor of the bill, 15—including House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan—voted no.

Boehner’s decision came down to a simple fact: None of the alternatives that were floated gained traction. The Speaker spent weeks consulting with his conference on various options, including tying a military pension fix to the hike, but nothing attracted 218 of his 233 members. Conservatives did not want to face the potential fall-out of voting in favor of a clean, debt ceiling increase, but they could not come to agreement on what they wanted in return. While many House Republicans have slowly come to recognize that fighting over the debt is politically reckless, there’s no consensus on how to move forward. Though Boehner’s decision left many conservatives unhappy, it probably prevented them from acting on more catastrophic instincts.

In turning to House Democrats for help, Speaker Boehner acknowledged that hard-core conservatives, of which there are about 75, would never vote for raising the debt limit. They would have voted no, on principle, regardless of what he attached to the bill. So, why go through the machinations of trying to win their votes in the first place? The only way to get the bill passed was to get enough Democrats on board. On Monday, the day before Boehner met with his conference, Minority Leader Pelosi informed him that she would deliver the votes he needed to pass a bill, but on one condition—the bill had to be clean. Democrats were holding together and would vote no if any policy riders were attached to the bill. Boehner’s final calculation was that a clean bill was better than no bill, so he moved forward.

One lesson to be learned from this vote is that moderate House Republicans can set the agenda on must-pass legislation. Moderates are far-outnumbered by the chamber’s Tea Party faction, but they are far more pragmatic when it comes to getting things done. The debt ceiling vote is a good example of how just a handful of Republican members can ultimately determine the fate of significant legislation.

Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

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