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Blog: Does the "Clean" Debt Ceiling Vote Augur Well for a More Effective Congress this Year?

Feb 18, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

On February 11, 2014, many witnessed a rarity in the House – a "clean" debt ceiling bill passed on a vote of 221 to 201. And on February 12, the Senate followed suit on a party-line vote of 55 to 43. These votes lift the U.S. Treasury's borrowing authority until March 2015, postponing the next showdown until after November's midterm elections.

Despite the relief felt in both congressional halls and in the White House, the votes in both Senate and House were almost strictly party-line. In the House, only 28 Republicans joined 193 Democrats to vote for the "clean" debt bill. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his leadership team were forced to end a potential filibuster led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX); in the final vote, the Democratic caucus (55 members) carries the legislation.

These actions meant that 94% of Republicans could tell their constituents in their home districts or states that they voted "no" on raising the debt ceiling, and thus preserve their reputations as fiscal conservatives.

Since 2011, House Republicans have used the need to raise the debt ceiling as an opportunity to extract concessions from President Obama and congressional Democrats. They have prevailed for three years – enough time that the feat became known as the "Boehner rule" – for every dollar the debt ceiling was raised another dollar of spending had to be cut. Not this time! But not for want of trying. Despite days, even weeks of effort, Boehner and his fellow GOP leaders failed to find an issue (trying first to gain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, moving to attacks on aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and even an attempt to repeal some cuts to military pensions that would have won the support of some Democrats) that would be palatable enough to get a majority of 218 Republicans to vote for it.

Why was a "clean" debt bill important? Is Senator McCain correct that the GOP's capitulation on the debt ceiling showed that a lesson was learned from last fall's government shutdown about the perils of provoking government crises? There are both optimists and pessimists who try to answer these questions.

Optimists will claim that this is the third time in less that two months that Americans have witnessed congressional accomplishments of value. They will cite the budget compromise between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) that drew bipartisan support from both houses of Congress. The Farm Bill, which passed in January, had bipartisan support, and now the debt ceiling bill passed both houses of Congress unencumbered with extraneous proposals. Optimists may assert that this trio of bills bodes well for passage of immigration reform later in the spring.

Pessimists, on the other hand, doubt that the vote on the debt ceiling was a Republican surrender; more of a hiatus, they would claim. They point to numerous outside Republican groups (e.g. Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Tea Party Activists, Freedom Works, ForAmerica) that were sharply critical of Speaker Boehner's leadership of the House, especially after the "clean" debt ceiling bill, and vowed to work more actively to influence House members to end his speakership and install a "real" fiscal conservative who will wring fiscal concessions from the president.

With respect to immigration reform, pessimists point out that the debt ceiling saga just mirrors Boehner's recently stalled push for immigration reform. When he and other top GOP leaders presented their "principles" for immigration reform at the Republican retreat a few weeks ago, they portrayed the move as necessary to rebrand the party and improve its appeal to Latino voters. However, just a few days ago, Boehner conceded the pitch did not go down well with rank-and-file members and said that immigration reform would be difficult to pass this year. Optimists will have to work exceedingly hard to garner meaningful immigration reform legislation in 2014.

I'll opt for the optimists. With no other budget/appropriations /debt ceiling votes to clutter the congressional landscape this year, immigration reform is on everyone's mind. Many people thought that Boehner would marginalize the far-right contingent in the House at the beginning of 2014, especially after he had hired a real immigration reformer, Rebecca Tallent, for his staff. Who knows for sure what his intent was? E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, had a brilliant suggestion in his column on February 12, which would test this theory. If 193 Democrats in the House were willing to vote a hike in the debt ceiling, this is proof that there is a moderate governing majority in the House. Why not test this theory by bringing immigration reform bills to the floor and see if practical-minded Republicans would join Democrats in supporting them? Quite a suggestion! Such a plan would also test many Republican's professed support of immigration reform.

Even George Will, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a column on February 14 that borrowed the Democrats' arguments for passing comprehensive immigration reform, albeit with several caveats. He obviously wants to steer the Republicans forward on this issue and strongly desires compromise. This means that internal party fractiousness will have to give way to true bipartisan cooperation – what we saw in the budget compromise and the Farm Bill and even, to a lesser extent, in the debt ceiling bill.

For the real optimist, next year at this time, we will be having a completely different conversation!