WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved legislation Tuesday to extend the nation's borrowing capacity for another year, lifting the threat of government default and ending — for now — three years of partisan fiscal battles.
House Republican leaders rushed the measure to the floor after their fractious majority failed to agree on what, if any, conditions it would try to attach to the must-pass legislation. In the end they submitted a bill with no strings, leaving it to the chamber's Democratic minority to provide most of the votes for passage. Only 28 Republicans voted for the "clean" debt limit measure, making the final tally 221 to 201.
The Senate could sign off as soon as Wednesday, sending the measure to President Obama well ahead of the Feb. 27 deadline that Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew set as the date the nation risked default.
Coming on the heels of last month's bipartisan spending bill, the debt ceiling agreement could allow lawmakers to turn their sights back to legislative and policy issues after having been consumed by the budget and spending battles since 2011.
Partisan conflicts could simply shift to campaign mode as both parties prepare for the upcoming midterm election, in which Republicans hope to win control of the Senate. Although a fall deadline looms to pass legislation funding the government beyond Oct. 1, few expect a major fight so close to the election.
Vice President Joe Biden signaled the White House's hope that Washington would leave fiscal battles behind. "We're now moving in a sort of regular order," Biden said to reporters at the Capitol. "That's how it's supposed to work."
For Republicans, their retreat in the debt ceiling standoff marks a realization that their campaign to slash government spending has run its course and at least partly backfired with voters. They bore the brunt of the blame for last fall's 16-day government shutdown and shared responsibility for the nation's historic credit-rating downgrade in 2011.
As late as Monday evening, party leaders were seeking to build support for tying a debt limit increase to a proposal to reverse recent cuts made to some veterans' pensions. But it was soon clear that Republicans could not pass such a plan on their own, leading House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to announce Tuesday morning that he was moving a debt limit measure without any conditions to the floor.
"When you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing," Boehner said to reporters, referring to his difficulty in obtaining a majority in the House.
For Boehner — who once said he would insist on spending cuts equal to any new borrowing authorized — the sudden reversal was seen by some as a sign that the speaker can't corral his restive troops. He made a similar embarrassing about-face on immigration last week, having called in January for a renewed effort to introduce a GOP reform bill this year only to back down amid fierce opposition from his right flank.
But he and other Republicans decided it was smarter to move beyond an issue that has divided Republicans for the last year and focus instead on reclaiming the Senate majority.
During a rambunctious internal strategy discussion Monday night, Boehner told rank-and-file members that he wanted the debt ceiling debate to be the last major internal fight the party would have before the November election. Republicans hope that clearing the issue from the agenda for the remainder of the year will give them a stronger hand.
"I think that the leadership has come to the conclusion that we can't get anything done until we change the Senate," said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a conservative lawmaker. "I think if we have a different Senate, that at least lets the debate go forward and puts it on Obama's desk. That's a different test altogether."
So even though Boehner called Tuesday's outcome a disappointment, it reflected his strengthening hold on the speaker's gavel since the October government shutdown, which he blamed partly on conservative groups who had stoked internal divisions. Boehner had been nudging members toward this outcome since last month, arguing the party needed to pick its battles more carefully.
As soon as Boehner announced the course of action, conservative groups pounced. Several organizations rallied lawmakers to vote against it and one, the Senate Conservatives Fund, launched an online petition to replace Boehner as speaker.
Striking a somewhat sarcastic tone, Boehner left Tuesday's news conference singing, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay. My, oh my, what a wonderful day."
To protect most Republicans from having to support the measure, Boehner and other top leaders voted yes. But Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, author of the party's austere budget blueprints and the bipartisan-approved budget accord reached with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in December, voted no.
Boehner sought to put the onus on Democrats to come up with most of the votes needed for passage. Complaining that the president was unwilling to negotiate with the GOP, Boehner said, "Let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) promised that she would deliver the votes, a not-so-subtle suggestion that she had a firmer grip on her caucus than the speaker had on his. Pelosi, who told Democrats privately that they should not gloat, issued a statement calling Boehner's action "consistent with the intent of our Constitution and with the best interests of the American people."
But Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the No. 2 House Democrat, said it was "pathetic" for Republicans to attempt to demagogue on the issue, and linked it to Boehner's recent acknowledgment that passing immigration reform legislation was unlikely this year.
"The debt limit shows [and] comprehensive immigration reform shows that the Republican Party is a deeply divided party whose leaders have great difficulty … finding followers, and who are out of sync with the American people," he said to reporters. "That is a party that is rudderless and should be rejected by the American people."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the GOP leadership team, acknowledged how difficult it had been for his party to coalesce around a plan, even as he sought to shift blame to Democrats.
"It is a difficult issue for us," said Lankford, who voted against the measure. "Debt's not fun for us. And I know the Democrats just want to be able to add debt and say, 'We'll work it out one day.' This is not where we are."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was "very happy" the House had taken this path. But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who faces a tea party challenger in the primary, declined to say whether Republicans would support the effort. He gave no assurance that his party — including the Senate's tea party bloc — would not try to block it with a filibuster.
"We'll have a discussion," McConnell said. "We'll find out in the next couple of days how this is going to be handled in the Senate."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who faces multiple primary challengers in his reelection bid this year, said he was "dumbfounded" that House Republican leaders had advanced the clean debt limit measure. Asked whether he would vote for it when it moved to the Senate, he said, "Hell no."
"I just think we go from one extreme to another," he said. "Isn't there some choice in America between defaulting on your debt and doing nothing?"