WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House of Representatives turned down President Obama's request to raise the debt limit Wednesday in a largely symbolic vote that Democrats hoped would remind Americans of the ugly showdown that occurred last summer, when the nation came dangerously close to defaulting on its debt.
That showdown ultimately ended with Congress striking a deal that required the House and Senate to vote on whether to disapprove future debt-limit requests by the White House, including Wednesday's request to boost the cap by $1.2 trillion.
The House vote was mostly symbolic, because it fell short of the two-thirds majority required to disapprove the request and the Democratically controlled Senate will not go along. Yet it gives Republicans and some conservative Democrats the ability to say they opposed another increase in the nation's debt ceiling.
While Republicans cast their votes citing their desire to keep spending in check, Democrats pointed back to the consequences of the summer standoff, when the nation came close to a historic default on its debt and its credit rating was subsequently downgraded by Standard and Poor's.
"The House Republicans have become the party of chaos," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said shortly before the 239 to 176 vote. "Six months ago, they took us to the brink of default. No one in this country liked what they saw. Or maybe a very few ... surely not the markets."
Levin contended that Republicans know the president and Democrats will ensure the nation does not default, and therefore are "posturing."
"Here we are on the first full day in the House when we're in session this year, debating a measure that would take us immediately back to the brink of default," Levin said. "House Republicans are again relying on the votes of others to save them from themselves and to save this country from them."
Democrats were not alone in calling the vote a farce. GOP presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) interrupted his campaign to vote against the hike, and point out that Republicans agreed to the process that requires a two-thirds vote.
"This power to the president to ask for a debt increase, then we have to get two-thirds of the Congress to try to prevent it from going up -- this is a creature of Congress," said Paul.
Levin and others also linked the vote to the GOP's unpopular opposition to extending the 2 percent payroll tax cut just before Christmas -- a cut that was extended only until the end of next month.
"House Republicans have returned to Washington with the same confrontational tone ... when they nearly allowed the payroll tax and the unemployment insurance to expire," Levin said. "House Republicans act as if we don't already have a deadline looming -- one with vast implications for millions of American families -- that's what we should be talking about. In six weeks the payroll tax cut expires for 160 million Americans."
A House-Senate conference committee will start working on a plan to extend the cut for the rest of the year soon, although how they planned to accomplish that remained uncertain.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) admitted Wednesday that the pre-holiday tax standoff had been damaging to his party.
"We've got a lot of disparate voices in our conference," he said. "We were picking the right fight, but I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time."