In a shocking move, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) voted Wednesday to break a filibuster and advance the "clean" debt limit bill that the House passed a day earlier. Their votes swayed a number of reticent Republican senators and ensured final passage of the legislation moments later.
Both senators are up for re-election this year and face conservative primary challengers.
McConnell's GOP opponent, Matt Bevin, accused him of "cav[ing] to the left."
Once again #McConnell caves to the left, and votes to break conservative fillibuster on #DebtCeiling. #KYSen
— Matt Bevin (@MattBevin) February 12, 2014
McConnell took the plunge with his House counterparts.
Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and a swath of GOP chairmen voted Tuesday to raise the borrowing limit without any conditions attached.
It's the third time in the last year that Republicans have acceded to raise the debt ceiling without extracting policy concessions from the White House. Each time they initially threatened default, danced around the issue, and ultimately caved amid unyielding resolve among Democrats to end hostage-taking of the economy. The threat of default is how the GOP forced Democrats in 2011 to acquiesce to $2 trillion in spending cuts -- including the dreaded sequester.
"Th[is] is one of the most stomach turning moments I have witnessed in Senate floor history. Republicans walking the plank," Amanda Carpenter, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), said on Twitter. "Seriously, the image of all the GOP [senators] walking down with 'thumbs up' to suspend [the] debt ceiling with nothing in return is searing."
She called the debt ceiling "our most effective leverage" to enact fiscal reforms.
But the leaders' move means they cannot credibly threaten default again, at least until the balance of power fundamentally changes in Washington.
"I am pleased that Congress has put the latest round of threats and brinkmanship firmly behind us, hopefully for the last time," said Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA). "While I’m disappointed that Republicans took a few drama-filled weeks before they realized their attempts to keep the Tea Party happy were pointless, the legislation we passed today to take the threat of default off the table shows that an important message has gotten through."
The bill now goes to Obama's desk for his signature. It permits the U.S. to keep borrowing through March 15, 2015 to pay bills that Congress has incurred.