Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s vote yesterday to clear the way for Congress to lift the federal debt ceiling made the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s task of helping him win re-election a lot harder.
And, according to McConnell’s allies, one of their own is to blame: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Ted Cruz did not join the Senate to be part of the Republican team,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “And he certainly isn’t finding any new pals for this one.”
An intra-party tug of war playing out in six Republican Senate primary campaigns surfaced on the chamber’s floor when Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to advance a bill lifting the nation’s borrowing cap. That meant at least five Republicans were needed to help the 55-member Democratic caucus move the bill forward.
Republicans struggled to round up the votes until McConnell and his top lieutenant, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, stepped forward to vote “yes.” Both men face primary election challenges this year from the small-government Tea Party movement that propelled Cruz to the Senate in the 2012 election.
Ten other Republicans joined McConnell and Cornyn in the 67-31 vote advancing the bill. Shortly afterward all 12 opposed final passage, which occurred on a 55-43 party-line vote that sent the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Several of Cruz’s Republican colleagues said they resented seeing their colleagues put in a tough position.
“McConnell and Cornyn voted in a responsible way under the circumstances,” Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in an interview. He said he hoped others would realize 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 occur.”
The conflict that emerged in the debt-ceiling vote unnerved some Republicans, who worry that intra-party fights could undercut their goal of winning a Senate majority. Such divisiveness has cost Republicans seats they expected to win in the last two congressional elections, including in 2012 when Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana lost a primary battle to a Tea Party-backed challenger who then lost the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November’s races to take control of the Senate.
McConnell’s opponent in Kentucky’s May 20 Republican primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, immediately criticized the five-term senator for helping advance the debt- limit increase.
“I wish I could say I am surprised that Mitch McConnell voted to hand President Obama another blank check,” Bevin said in a statement. “Sadly, I am not, because this is more of the same from a career politician who has voted for bigger government, multiple bailouts, and now 11 debt-ceiling increases.”
Groups aligned with Bevin took aim at McConnell on websites and social media.
“How much more will Kentucky families owe thanks to Mitch McConnell giving the president a blank check?” wrote Redstate.com editor Erick Erickson.
An Internet ad released yesterday accused McConnell of voting “like a Democrat” on fiscal issues and pictured him along with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. The ad was sponsored by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee founded by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint that has helped elect Tea Party-backed senators.
McConnell supporters rallied around him.
Sally-Shannon Birkel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an e-mail called him a “true champion for American free enterprise.”
Birkel declined to say whether the reaction to yesterday’s vote would prompt the chamber to increase its advertising on McConnell’s behalf.
A U.S. Chamber advertisement supporting McConnell aired 452 times over a 10-day period in mid-December, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York-based political ad tracker. The ad cost the group $200,000, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The 30-second spot focused exclusively on McConnell’s support for coal. “That’s Mitch McConnell, a fighter who never lets Kentucky down,” a narrator said, showing the Chamber’s 92 percent lifetime approval rating for the senator.
Among the senior Republicans who joined McConnell and Cornyn in voting to advance the debt-limit bill were Corker, third-ranking leader John Thune of South Dakota, Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona.
Corker shot Cruz a hostile look during the roll-call on the procedural vote, which lasted more than an hour. He later told reporters he saw “no stated, clear” point to Cruz’s effort to block the measure after the House had passed it a day earlier.
“He’s new here,” Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, said of Cruz. “To be a leader, you have to do very hard things.”
Hatch told reporters he changed his vote to help move the bill forward because he “saw politics being played” with the issue and he “didn’t want it to be a political game.”
Cruz defended his position, telling reporters that “it should have been a very easy vote.”
Senate Republicans should have stood together and said “we will not go along with raising the debt ceiling while doing nothing to fix the underlying, out-of-control spending problem,” Cruz said.
Asked whether McConnell should be replaced as Senate Republican leader, Cruz said that was a decision “for the voters of Kentucky to make.”
Divisions among Republicans on spending helped provoke October’s 16-day partial government shutdown. Cruz was a leader of an ultimately failed effort to demand an end to funding for the 2010 health-care law, Obama’s signature first-term accomplishment, as a condition of financing the government.
The debt-limit bill will allow the U.S. to meet its obligations until at least March 15, 2015, more than four months after the November congressional election.
A suspension of the U.S. debt limit enacted by Congress in October expired Feb. 7. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said last week that borrowing authority may not last past Feb. 27.
Passage of a debt limit increase without conditions marks a victory for Obama and Democrats who refused to consider Republican demands to combine it with measures such as curbing the health-care law, approving the Keystone XL pipeline or cutting federal spending.
Obama, reacting after the Senate vote, said that “the full faith and credit of the United States is too important to use as leverage or a tool for extortion.”
He also said, in a statement released last night by the White House, that “hopefully, this puts an end to politics by brinkmanship.”
The House of Representatives, though Republican controlled, approved the 221-201 legislation on Feb. 11 mainly due to Democrats, who provided 193 of the “yes” votes. The 28 Republicans supporting the measure included Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
None of the House Republicans who backed the increase has drawn a primary challenge, though the speaker’s decision to allow the vote drew ire from Tea Party groups.
Since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, past showdowns over raising the debt ceiling brought the U.S. within days of a potential lapse in its borrowing authority three times before Congress acted.
“The outcome is a good one but I think that all of us wish that the process that led to it over the past three years had been very different,” said Mark Patterson, who was chief of staff at the Treasury Department from 2009 to 2013 and is now a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Washington.
This time, lawmakers sent a bill to Obama with about two weeks to spare.
“It appears that the things that used to be routine may be routine again,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said in an interview.
Republicans “seem to want to be on their best behavior in an election year,” he said.
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