WASHINGTON -- The Senate moved quickly Wednesday to boost the nation's debt limit, voting to extend the Treasury Department's borrowing authority into the spring of 2015.
Passage of the measure, which allows the government to pay for the spending previously enacted by Congress, grants Treasury officials authority to lend above the current debt limit of $17 trillion until March 15 next year.
The move comes just a day after the House passed the bill, although some senators led by Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had threatened to try to filibuster it. The Senate voted 67 to 31 to overcome the procedural hurdle -- with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and several other GOP leaders joining the Democrats -- and then voted 55 to 43 to pass the bill.
Cruz later lamented a lost opportunity to achieve the sorts of cuts he thinks are necessary to bring balance to the federal budget.
"If you look historically, the last 55 times the debt ceiling has been raised, 28 of those times Congress has attached meaningful spending restrictions," Cruz told reporters just off the Senate floor. "Indeed, historically it has been the most effective leverage that Congress had, and today Congress decided to abdicate that leverage, abdicate its leadership."
The leadership remark seemed aimed at McConnell, though Cruz declined to say the Republican Senate leader should step down. "That is ultimately a decision, in the first instance, for the voters of Kentucky," Cruz said.
McConnell is facing a primary challenge this year from a tea party businessman, as well as perhaps the toughest general election challenge of his career from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).
Other of McConnell's colleagues saw bravery in his vote, as well as those of fellow party leaders Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.).
"I must say it was a very courageous act, especially on the part of Senator McConnell, who as we all know is in a very tough race," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "He knows that he's the leader. He's the elected Republican leader, and it was up to him to cast the right vote."
The debt ceiling hike's passage marks a contrast with the last few highly contentious years in which Congress faced numerous showdowns over spending, leading to the much-maligned sequestration law in 2011 and the government shutdown last fall. The showdowns also disturbed markets and raised the constant specter of America's defaulting on its debt. The shutdown last October cost an estimated $24 billion in economic activity.
Such uncertainty may be over, at least for a while. Between the budget bill passed in December -- which set government spending levels for two years -- and the 13-month borrowing extension, Congress may be on a path to avoiding any major showdowns over spending until after the 2014 elections.
Still, Republicans predicted they would be able to keep pushing the issue of cuts and score political points, even if they have to pick their fights and possibly wait a year.
"I think this is an opportunity for Republicans to show the American people that Republicans are serious about cutting spending and having a pro-growth agenda, and the Democrats are not serious about it," said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) after the House passed its bill. "What they want to do is put more people on the dole."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) credited Democrats in the Senate for getting the debt legislation passed, saying they "reframed the debate" during the government shutdown to the point that it was no longer considered responsible to tackle deficit reduction while raising the debt ceiling.
"That's fascinating to me that we've gone so far as a nation. If you think about just 20 years ago, Democrats and Republicans came together to balance the budget. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich still talk about this great achievement of balancing the budget," Lankford said.
Lankford, who is running this year for the seat held by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said his party wouldn't give up so easily next March -- especially if they regain control of the upper chamber.
"The next time that this will come up will be after the next election," he said. "Hopefully we can win the Senate, and we can have a completely different conversation at that point."
Lankford added that Republicans had already begun conversations about how to get ahead of the issue next time, rather than addressing the debt limit so close to the default deadline that Congress' options were limited.
UPDATE: 8:55 p.m. -- President Barack Obama praised the passage of the debt ceiling bill in a statement Wednesday evening, saying he hoped it signaled "an end to politics by brinkmanship:"
I’m pleased that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come together to pay for what they’ve already spent, and remove the threat of default from our economy once and for all. The full faith and credit of the United States is too important to use as leverage or a tool for extortion. Hopefully, this puts an end to politics by brinksmanship and allows us to move forward to do more to create good jobs and strengthen the economy. Instead of wasting time creating new crises, Congress should be focused on creating new jobs and opportunities. That’s what the American people deserve from their representatives in Washington, and that's what they should get.
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