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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 t