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House Passes 'Clean' Debt Limit Bill After Republicans Capitulate

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WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives approved a rise in the nation's debt limit Tuesday, setting up passage of a bill in the Senate that would allow the nation to continue paying its bills this year.

The measure, which boosts the current debt ceiling of $17 trillion before the government would have been forced to default at the end of the month, passed 221 to 201, with 28 Republicans joining 193 Democrats in voting yes.

Republicans in the Senate have not committed early to letting the measure proceed quickly in their chamber, but several said privately they expect it to pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised his counterpart in the House -- Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- for shepherding the unpopular but vital legislation through the lower chamber, where similar measures have sparked dramatic, damaging showdowns for the last few years.

"I commend Speaker Boehner for doing the right thing," Reid told reporters as the House was moving the legislation. "I hope this common-sense approach will continue throughout the year so we can actually get things done," Reid said, adding that raising the debt ceiling was "a good first step" to getting back to better relations in Congress.

Republicans had threatened to at least try to attach some other measure to the hike, but capitulated Tuesday after they were unable to agree on specific demands. Having weighed proposals last week to link the debt ceiling rise to repeal of Obamacare's risk corridors provision or approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, House GOP leaders were prepared on Monday to tie the increase to restoring recent cuts of military retirement benefits.

But by Tuesday morning, even that plan lacked enough Republican support, and Boehner acknowledged to reporters that it had been difficult getting his members to coalesce around a plan.

"If you don't have 218 [votes], you don't have anything," he said, referring to the number of votes it take to pass a measure in the 435-member House.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who voted against the debt ceiling hike, said Boehner had been put in "a very tough box" due to the divisions among House Republicans, which he likened to "a couple that's fighting over money all the time."

"Once you get into debt and your big fight's over money, every fight is over money and that becomes the big issue," Lankford told reporters. "That's where we are now. We're very deep into debt, and now everything is about money all the time and it's very difficult to find agreement on money issues."

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said he was surprised his colleagues were unable to agree on adjusting the military COLA as part of a debt limit increase, but concluded that some Republicans are so ideologically opposed to raising the debt ceiling that no bill would have passed muster with them.

"You've got 17 or 18 new members who have pledged as part of their campaign that they will never vote for a debt limit increase no matter what they put on it," Rooney told HuffPost. "So that's a lot of people right off the top ... and we just physically can't get there without Democratic help."

Several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said enough GOP members were going along this time because Republicans had learned the lesson from the public pounding they took in the previous standoffs.

"What has happened over the last year is the American people overwhelmingly rejected the shutdown of the government. Overwhelmingly," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Obamacare saved us because it shifted attention to Obamacare, but we were sinking rapidly in the polls because Americans don't like government, but they didn't want it shut down. That's been an object lesson to Republicans."

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said it took "a long and tortuous process" to get to this point. "The Democrats did make the initial mistake in negotiating on the debt limit, which is how we got the sequester in 2011," he said. "And then the Republicans learned their lesson in the shutdown."

Still, many Republicans were angry that their side gave in so easily.

"I think those in leadership don't share the concern of many of us in the Republican Party that at some point in the future the debt will lead to the collapse of America. I don't think they share it," said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.).

"We're dumbfounded. I just think we go from one extreme to the other," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said after leaving a Senate GOP caucus meeting. "Isn't there some choice in America between defaulting on your debt and doing nothing? Shutting the government down to defund Obamacare was a tactical choice that never made sense to me. But this is another extreme of raising the debt ceiling without addressing any of the fundamentals of why we're in debt."

Others pointed the finger across the aisle. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Republicans were frustrated not with Boehner, but with President Barack Obama's refusal to negotiate. "I mean, we could have asked for a copy machine and the president would have been willing to actually default on our debt so he could make a political point," Labrador told reporters during the vote.

For Democrats, a one-year debt limit hike with no strings attached marked yet another major victory after they won most of what they wanted in last October's deal to end the government shutdown. Democrats attributed the latest Republican cave to Democrats' refusal to negotiate over the government's ability to pay its bills -- a pledge on which they have held firm since they ended up on the losing end of the 2011 debt ceiling fight.

“I’m glad that Republican leaders finally bowed to reality and put families and the economy before the Tea Party," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement. "The era of economic hostage-taking, ransom demands, and manufactured crises should finally be behind us, and we now have an opportunity to refocus on the real challenges workers and families face every day."

UPDATE: 8:45 p.m. -- The White House commended the passage of the bill in a statement after the vote:

Tonight’s vote is a positive step in moving away from the political brinkmanship that’s a needless drag on our economy. The American economy is moving forward, but there is much more to do to ensure that more middle class Americans -– and those striving to get into it -– can get ahead. Congress can start by raising the minimum wage so that no one who works full time raises their family in poverty, restoring emergency unemployment insurance for the 1.7 million Americans searching every day for a job who need this vital lifeline to support their families, and taking additional steps to strengthen our economy and restore opportunity for all Americans. The President looks forward to working with both sides to get that done.

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