Dramatic debt vote stirs Senate

Greg Nash

The Senate sent a bill hiking the debt ceiling to President Obama’s desk on Wednesday, but only after a dramatic fight that forced GOP Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump ‘will not change the Republican Party’ Rankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks Hillary's ObamaCare problem MORE (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.

McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John CornynJohn CornynClinton email headache is about to get worse Overnight Tech: House GOP launches probe into phone, internet subsidies Senators hope for deal soon on mental health bill MORE (Texas) reluctantly backed ending debate after it became clear that no one in their conference wanted to cast the deciding 60th vote.

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Sixty votes were needed to overcome a filibuster by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzRankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks Stephen Hawking: Trump a 'demagogue' Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals MORE (R-Texas), who complained that Congress was raising the debt ceiling without demanding any curbs on Washington’s spending.

With the upper chamber’s Democrats and Independents all voting yes, Senate Republicans needed to muster five votes to overcome Cruz.

Yet during an hour of tense floor conversations, it appeared they might fail.

The vote started late, as Senate Republicans huddled behind closed doors. After meeting for roughly an hour in private, the conference still did not know whether it could conjure up the needed votes.

On the floor, the procedural vote ran on for another hour, with Republicans slow to offer support.

Cornyn and McConnell, who is the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection in 2014, then voted to end the debate, making it clear the procedural motion would be approved.

After their dramatic votes, another group of Republicans met in a room off the Senate floor. They returned, and several switched their votes from no to yes.

Some members said they switched their votes to give cover to McConnell and Cornyn.

“I didn’t want this to come down to just be a criticized vote for just a few of our people. It just wasn’t right,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchSenate contradicts itself on Gitmo Ten senators ask FCC to delay box plan An affordable housing solution both parties can get behind MORE (R-Utah), who fought off a primary challenger in 2012 and is serving his last term.

In the end, 12 Republicans voted to end debate in the 67-31 vote.

On final passage, the bill suspending the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, was approved in a 55-43 vote, with every Republican voting no.

The bill will allow hundreds of billions in surplus spending accumulated through that deadline to be added to the existing $17.2 trillion debt. It also ensures the debt ceiling will not need to be raised again until well after the midterm elections.

Obama backed the bill and is expected to sign it.

The battle over the procedural vote highlighted tensions in the GOP between establishment and Tea Party Republicans.

Centrist Republicans had spent days trying to convince Cruz to drop his filibuster so the bill could be approved in a simple majority vote on the backs of Democrats. 

After the vote, Cruz blasted the debt hike as “a classic victory for Washington establishment interests.”

Asked if McConnell should no longer lead Senate Republicans, Cruz demurred.

“That is ultimately a decision, in the first instance, for the voters of Kentucky to make,” he said.

McConnell’s GOP primary challenger Matt Bevin attacked the incumbent before the vote was over, writing on Twitter that Kentucky deserves better.

But McConnell was backed by members of his conference who praised what they described as a courageous vote.

“Hopefully people will understand that McConnell, in the toughest Republican race in the country, had the courage to vote the way the vast majority of everybody understood the vote needed to go,” Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerRankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks Rubio: 'Maybe' would run for Senate seat if 'good friend' wasn't McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection MORE (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWhy a power grid attack is a nightmare scenario Senate fight brews over Afghan visas Trump: Illegal immigrants treated better than veterans MORE (R-Ariz.), who also planned to vote no but then switch his vote to yes on the procedural motion, said McConnell showed “a great deal of leadership, so did Cornyn.”

“Both of them are in primaries, particularly Mitch. They played the leaders’ role,” he said.

It was the same position that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIn House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable House GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (R-Ohio) and his leadership team played in Tuesday’s House vote, when only 28 Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling.

McCain said the debt vote would allow the GOP to move on from fiscal fights that damaged the party’s image in the fall, when it got the lion’s share of the blame in polls for the government shutdown.

“Our focus is on ObamaCare, repeal and replace ObamaCare,” McCain said. “If you shift the attention like we did on the shutdown of the government, then we lose our focus on what we think is important.”

The Republicans who voted in favor of ending debate were McConnell, Cornyn, Hatch, McCain, Corker and Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsWhy a power grid attack is a nightmare scenario GOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds MORE (Maine), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeDem senators call for sanctions on Congo McCain urges sports leagues to return 'paid patriotism' money Overnight Tech: House GOP launches probe into phone, internet subsidies MORE (Ariz.), Mike JohannsMike JohannsTo buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops Revisiting insurance regulatory reform in a post-crisis world MORE (Neb.), Mark KirkMark KirkFunding boost for TSA sails through committee GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo VA chief 'deeply' regrets if Disney comment offended vets MORE (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiConservation program at center of energy bill fight Senators float bipartisan wildfire bill Overnight Energy: Lawmakers closing in on chemical safety deal MORE (Alaska) and John ThuneJohn ThuneHow airport security lines got so bad Self-driving cars: The next great leap in automotive safety Overnight Tech: Senate panel poised to advance email privacy bill MORE (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenators to Obama: Make 'timely' call on Afghan troops levels Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise Trump: Romney 'walks like a penguin' MORE (R-S.C.) predicted McConnell’s vote will have minimal impact on his reelection race.

“I think people understood that he is not for raising the debt ceiling without something attached. Obviously, that was impossible after the House voted for a clean increase,” Graham said. “Hopefully the other people voting with him helps and hopefully people see it as an act of pragmatic leadership.”

This story was posted at 2:56 p.m. and updated at 8:09 p.m.

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