Behind Closed Doors, a Messy Fight over the Debt-Ceiling Hike

by Betsy Woodruff

Today’s vote in the Senate to raise the debt ceiling presented Republicans with a serious political conundrum. GOP sources tell NRO that in the party’s Steering Committee lunch this afternoon, there was a discussion about whether to give unanimous consent to skip a cloture vote on the debt-ceiling hike, which would have meant that only a simple majority would have been required to raise the debt ceiling. But in the lunch today, at least one Republican senator vocally opposed unanimous consent. 

The same issue came up in yesterday’s caucus lunch, per a Republican aide. The aide says that when Senator Ted Cruz said he would refuse to support unanimous consent to allow for a 51-vote threshold, “there was a spirited exchange between him, McConnell, and others.”

If all the Republicans had agreed to go straight to a final vote, then vulnerable members of their caucus — including McConnell, who faces a challenging reelection bid in Kentucky — wouldn’t have had to vote for cloture and, as a result, wouldn’t have given any extra fodder to their primary challengers from the right.

Other sources tell NRO that when Republicans discussed the upcoming debt ceiling vote in yesterday’s lunch, it was clear no one wanted to vote for the hike. Unanimous consent would have meant Republicans didn’t have to take it. But it wasn’t to be.

“That game doesn’t work anymore,” says the conservative aide. 

That’s because some conservatives in the caucus, including Cruz, vehemently opposed skipping the cloture vote. A conservative Senate aide tells NRO that some of the frustration with party leadership stems from what’s seen as acquiescence to Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been keeping Republicans from adding amendments to legislation. Now, it’s very unlikely that any Republican-proposed amendments added to the debt ceiling vote would have garnered the votes necessary to be added to the final legislation. But if Republicans had a chance to propose amendments, which would have been unlikely under Senate procedure, it would have been an opportunity to signal to voters how a Republican-headed Senate would operate — and they’d be able to get vulnerable red-state Democrats on the record voting against potentially popular proposals (that’s all per the conservative aide).

“This is how minorities become majorities,” he continues, adding that he believes McConnell isn’t doing enough to combat Reid on the issue. “Our own leadership is taking away our ability to do that. That’s why we’re so pissed off.”

One GOP Senate aide describes yesterday’s lunch this way: “Yesterday at the GOP lunch, Republican senators insisting on a 60-vote threshold received fierce pushback from Leader McConnell who was unwilling to put up a fight to get any spending concessions on the debt limit vote. The 60-vote threshold forced Republicans to actually take a stand today. Sadly it wasn’t for the American taxpayer.”

Others Republicans disagree with that analysis, and vehemently. National Journal reports some Republican reactions this way:

“”You know, we can put the country through two weeks of turmoil or we can get this vote behind us. . . . Was there some other debate that we were missing here? The fact is, the House could only pass a clean debt ceiling,” [Tennessee Republican Bob] Corker added.

John McCain also praised GOP leadership for voting for cloture. “I must say it was a very courageous act especially for Sen. McConnell who we all know is in a very tough race,” McCain said. “He knows he’s the leader, the elected Republican leader.” McCain wouldn’t recount what exactly went on in the cloakroom, but said “we had good conversations,” and again praised Cornyn and McConnell, as well as [South Dakota Republican John] Thune, for their leadership.”

So twelve Republicans — including McConnell, Senator John Thune, and Senator John Cornyn — voted for cloture. Some Republicans see that as taking one for the team — a “courageous act,” in the words of McCain. Others see it as capitulation to Democrats. It’s a messy schism.