The Senate approved a "clean" debt-ceiling bill on Wednesday, but the real drama occurred just before the vote, when the upper chamber's top two Republicans bucked firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, voting to end debate and bring the bill to a final vote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip John Cornyn came forward to end Cruz's filibuster on the legislation.
The first-term Cruz, who is backed by the tea party and is from Cornyn's state of Texas, had called for a 60-vote threshold to end debate on the measure.
After discussions among GOP senators on the floor of the chamber, McConnell and Cornyn came forward to cast "aye" votes to end debate — a move called "cloture."
Both McConnell and Cornyn are facing tough primary elections in their home states this spring against tea party-backed candidates.
In all, 12 Republican senators voted to invoke cloture, joining with 53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats. The bill then advanced to the floor and was approved 55-43 on a straight party-line vote.
Besides McConnell and Cornyn, the other Republicans voting against Cruz were Sens. John Barrasso, Wyoming; Susan Collins, Maine; Bob Corker, Tennessee; Jeff Flake, Arizona; Orrin Hatch, Utah; Mike Johanns, Nebraska; Mark Kirk, Illinois; John McCain, Arizona; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; and John Thune, South Dakota.
"Hopefully people will understand that McConnell, in the toughest Republican race in the country, had the courage to vote the way the vast majority of everybody understood the vote needed to go," Corker told The Hill
after the vote. "He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part."
McCain, who reversed his vote to support ending debate, told The Hill that McConnell showed "a great deal of leadership, so did Cornyn."
"Both of them are in primaries, particularly Mitch," McCain added. "They played the leaders' role."
Cruz said he had no regrets in his opposition to the bill.
"The Senate has given President Obama a blank check," he said after the final vote.
"In my view, every Republican should stand together against raising the debt ceiling without meaningful structural reforms to rein in our out-of-control spending."
As for forcing a difficult vote on McConnell, Cruz said: "That is ultimately a decision ... for the voters of Kentucky."
McConnell faces a primary election challenge from Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin, who attacked the five-term Republican on Twitter for Wednesday's vote, and has been under sharp criticism from outside groups who say he isn't conservative enough.
Cruz later released a statement saying, "Today’s vote is yet another example that establishment politicians from both parties are simply not listening to the American people. Outside the Beltway, Americans of all political stripes understand that we cannot keep spending money we don’t have.
"Some members of Congress care so much about being praised by the Washington media that they’re willing to mortgage our children’s future," Cruz added. "They pretend we don’t have a problem and can just kick the can down the road.
"Let’s be clear about the motive behind this vote — there are too many members of Congress who think they can fool people and they will forget about it the next week.
"But sometimes, come November, the people remember."
The Senate vote sends the debt-ceiling bill to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it on Thursday.
"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," Obama said.
The legislation suspends the nation's debt limit until March 15, 2015, allowing the government to keep borrowing beyond its current $17.2 trillion limit. Afterward, however, the new ceiling will equal the amount of debt the government has accumulated in total.
On Tuesday, the House voted 221-201 to back the clean debt legislation. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia were among 28 Republicans supporting the bill. Two Democrats joined the GOP in rejecting it.
"The reason the Republicans folded was because anything else would have been disastrous for the party — in the sense of a government shutdown or a political crisis," political analyst and pollster Doug Schoen told Newsmax late Wednesday.
"The Republicans would have been blamed for failure to extend the debt ceiling — and it could have been calamitous for their election chances," he added, referencing October's 16-day partial federal government shutdown, which cost taxpayers $1.4 billion.
"The Republicans would not risk paralyzing the government again," Schoen said.
He described the moves by Boehner and McConnell as farsighted.
"Given the low and sinking approval ratings of the Obama administration, the Republican leadership ... made the determination that by folding on the debt ceiling they would avoid political damage and would win on issues like the economy and Obamacare."
"I suspect that, in the long run, they made the right decision — even though in the short term, their base will be deeply disappointed."
The Club for Growth
urged legislators in both chambers to vote against the clean debt legislation — and the Senate Conservatives Fund
called for Boehner's replacement after Tuesday's vote.
Schoen predicted that for McConnell, Cornyn, and others seeking re-election in tough races, Wednesday's votes "could cause them severe political harm in Republican primaries."
"It certainly was the right decision for the party to make for November," he said. "In the short term, in terms of Republican primaries, for those who voted yes — it could be problematic."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, who supported Cruz's 60-vote threshold and later voted against the legislation, told The Hill that McConnell would not be harmed by his vote.
"I think people understood that he is not for raising the debt ceiling without something attached," the South Carolina Republican said. "Obviously, that was impossible after the House voted for a clean increase.
"Hopefully, the other people voting with him helps, and hopefully people see it as an act of pragmatic leadership."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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