The Republican-led House began its first full legislative day of the new year by reigniting one of last year's pivotal partisan fights: the debt ceiling debate that helped to define the tea party-powered majority.
The House voted largely along party lines Wednesday to deny President Obama an increase in new borrowing authority — a political exercise that is not expected to curtail federal spending or threaten a federal default. The tally was 239 to 176.
Because the measure is expected to stall in the Senate, which Democrats control, and is opposed by Obama, it is unlikely to prevent a $1.2-trillion increase in the debt ceiling.
"Here we are in the first full day of the House debating a measure that would take us back to the brink of default," said Democratic Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan. "It's a rerun of a bad movie. House Republicans have returned to Washington with the same confrontational tone.... Enough is more than enough."
Republican leaders are eager to move past last year's showdowns, but Wednesday's vote was part of the summer deal to increase the nation's debt limit. The GOP had demanded that Obama request the increase in three increments, and that each chamber of Congress get the chance to vote no.
The national debt stands at $15.2 trillion, as much as the gross domestic product. The $1.2-trillion increase is expected to cover the nation's obligations through the November election, ending, for now, the GOP's ability to leverage the issue to extract other legislative priorities.
Republican House members returned to Washington humbled by the year-end showdown over another issue, a reduction in Social Security taxes withheld from workers' paychecks, that is also headed for a do-over in the early weeks of this year.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) met behind closed doors with his rank and file Wednesday in what lawmakers described as a "lively" session. Many lawmakers remained frustrated with the compromise Boehner struck for a short-term extension of the payroll tax reduction, which expires Feb. 29. Lawmakers are bracing for another showdown.
"A lot of people weren't happy about that," said freshman Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida.
House leaders acknowledged during the closed session that they had learned lessons from that tax fight, including the need to better communicate to the robust freshman class the political fallout of their actions.
The GOP closed the year with a battered standing in opinion polls, as Republicans appeared intent on blocking a tax break that puts about $20 a week in the pocket of the average American worker. Both Republicans and Democrats wanted a yearlong extension of the break, but talks hit an impasse over how to pay for it. That problem remains as talks resume.
"We were picking the right fight, but I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time," Boehner told reporters.
Wednesday's debt ceiling debate drew criticism from the conservative Club for Growth, which called out the "hypocrisy" of Republican lawmakers who agreed to the deal last summer but now voted against additional borrowing.
Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York, who was among those singled out for criticism, countered that this vote was important to keep attention on the debt load, which he called the "fundamental issue of our generation."
"The point today is to demonstrate that the House is still focused on the debt," Reed said.
Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas returned to Washington from the presidential campaign trail to speak on the House floor about what, for him, is a marquee issue.
"This is sad because this process is a really very mixed-up effort to try to curtail spending," he said about the vote. "We ought to face up to reality and live within our limits."