WASHINGTON — Legislation to raise the federal debt limit and prevent a crippling government default cleared Congress on Wednesday with an awkward assist from top Senate Republican leaders who were forced into a politically treacherous vote engineered by tea party favorite Ted Cruz.
The Texas Republican's maneuver forced several GOP colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, into a reluctant vote against a filibuster, helping the measure along. It's a vote likely to cause grief for McConnell, who is facing a primary election challenges.
On a day of legislative drama, the key vote clearing the way for final action was held open for more than an hour — as the stock market looked on nervously — and broke open only after McConnell and top lieutenant John Cornyn, R-Texas, unexpectedly voted "aye." Several other Republicans then switched their votes to support the measure, ultimately breaking the filibuster by a 67-31 margin.
The bill then passed the Senate by a near party-line 55-43 vote, with all of the yes votes coming from President Barack Obama's allies.
"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 in a statement.
The president is now clear to sign the bill, which allows the government to borrow all the money it needs to pay bills such as Social Security benefits, federal salaries, and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers. Failure to pass it would have likely sent the stock market — which dipped modestly as the voting dragged on — into a tailspin.
After the tally, Cruz said he had no regrets about his political maneuvers in opposition to the bill, saying the "Senate has given President Obama a blank check."
As for forcing a difficult vote upon McConnell, Cruz said: "That is ultimately a decision ... for the voters of Kentucky."
McConnell faces a primary election challenge from tea party candidate Matt Bevin and has been under sharp criticism from outside groups who say he isn't conservative enough.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was among those who appeared frustrated by the political theatrics.
"A lot of people stepped up and did what they needed to do," Corker said of those who acted to let the must-pass legislation win final approval. Congress has never failed to act to prevent a default on U.S. obligations, which most experts say would spook financial markets and cause a spike in interest rates.
Cruz countered: "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."
The same bill had passed the House on Tuesday after Republican leaders gave up efforts to hold up the debt ceiling measure to win concessions from Obama on GOP agenda items like winning approval of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Quick action on this latest debt limit bill stands in contrast to lengthy showdowns in 2012 and last fall, when Republicans sought to use the must-pass legislation as leverage to win concessions from Obama. They succeeded in 2011, winning about $2 trillion in spending cuts. But Obama has been unwilling to negotiate over the deb limit since his re-election, and Wednesday's legislation is the third consecutive debt measure passed without White House concessions.
Republicans have been less confrontational since October's 16-day partial government shutdown sent GOP poll numbers skidding and chastened the party's tea party faction. Republicans have instead sought to focus voters' attention on the implementation and effects of Obama's health care law.
But most Republicans still say any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied by cuts to the spiraling costs of costly benefit programs like Medicare.
"We need some reform before we raise the debt ceiling. We need to demonstrate that we are taking steps that will reduce the accumulation of debt in the future," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the Budget Committee. "And the president and the Democratic Senate have just flatly refused. So they've just said, 'We'll accept no restraint on spending'."
Some Republicans seemed irked that Cruz wouldn't let the bill pass without forcing it to clear a 60-vote threshold that required some Republicans to help it advance.
"I'm not going to talk about that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked if Republicans are annoyed with Cruz.
The debt measure permits Treasury to borrow regularly through March 15, 2015, putting the issue off until after the November elections and setting it up for the new Congress to handle next year.
If Republicans take over the Senate, they're likely to insist on linking the debt ceiling to spending cuts and other GOP agenda items. But for now at least, the issue is being handled the old fashioned way, with the party of the incumbent president being responsible for supplying the votes to pass it and with the minority party not standing in the way.
"I think we will go back to the responsible way of making sure that our country does not default," said Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.