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 McConnellCongress fails on promises to restore regular order and stop funding by crisis Overnight Healthcare: Dems dig in over Zika funding Business groups ramp up pressure to fill Ex-Im board MORE (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.

McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's 12:30 Report House to vote on NRA-backed gun measure Attorney general says she will defer to FBI on Clinton emails 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 CruzTrump meets with Gov. Mike Pence amid VP speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report Trump hires Florida chief strategist, new pollster 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 HatchTreasury officials to meet with lawmakers on inversion rules A bipartisan bright spot we can’t afford to pass up: child welfare reform Medicare trust fund running out of money fast 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 CorkerVeep auditions in overdrive Gingrich, Christie top Trump’s VP list: report Senate honors Tennessee coach Pat Summitt MORE (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWhich GOP pols will actually attend the convention? Trump bucks military on waterboarding Overnight Defense: Pentagon lifts transgender ban | Navy says Iran broke law by detaining sailors 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 BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility 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 CollinsThe Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Senators press Obama education chief on reforms GOP senator: Trump endorsement could depend on VP MORE (Maine), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeGOP senator: Trump could lose Arizona McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote 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 KirkSenate panel approves 0M for international climate fund Senator calls for pause in accepting Syrian refugees after Istanbul attack Overnight Healthcare: Blame game over Zika funding MORE (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiSenators seek state revenue sharing for offshore drilling Senate panel approves 0M for international climate fund GOP senator praises Supreme Court's abortion ruling MORE (Alaska) and John ThuneJohn ThuneVeep auditions in overdrive Gingrich, Christie top Trump’s VP list: report Congress must resolve net neutrality once and for all MORE (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Defense: US blames ISIS for Turkey attack | Afghan visas in spending bill | Army rolls up its sleeves Senate panel passes bill that would create 4K visas for Afghans Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office 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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