WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. House
of Representatives narrowly approved a one-year extension of federal
borrowing authority on Tuesday after Republicans caved in to
President Barack Obama's demands to allow a debt limit increase
without any conditions.
The 221-201 vote, carried mainly by Democrats, marked a dramatic
shift from the confrontational fiscal tactics House Republicans have
used over the past three years, culminating in last October's 16-day
It came after House Republicans repudiated House Speaker John
Boehner's latest plan to link an increase in the $17.2 trillion
borrowing cap to a repeal of planned cuts to military pensions.
Although Boehner called his decision to advance a "clean" debt limit
a "disappointing moment," it sets aside a difficult and divisive
issue until after the 2014 congressional elections in November,
allowing Republicans to focus their campaign efforts on the rocky
launch of Obama's healthcare reform law.
The White House hailed the House vote as "a positive step in moving
away from the political brinkmanship that's a needless drag on our
Democrats provided most of the "yes" votes on the debt limit
increase, which was hastily attached to a measure renaming an air
traffic control center in Nashua, New Hampshire. There were 193
Democrats who voted yes, versus just 28 Republicans, who wanted to
pin blame on Obama's refusal to negotiate.
"He will not engage in our long-term spending problem," Boehner told
reporters earlier on Tuesday. "So let his party give him the debt
ceiling increase that he wants."
The Democratic-controlled Senate was likely to begin consideration
of the measure on Wednesday. But Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a
conservative Tea Party favorite, said on Tuesday night he would
insist on a 60-vote threshold for the debt ceiling measure to pass
the Senate. That would mean at least five Republicans would need to
join the Democrats, who control 55 votes, for the measure to pass
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn said earlier on Tuesday there
were "probably not" five Republican votes in the Senate for a clean
debt ceiling increase. But Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking
Democrat in the chamber, voiced optimism there would be 60 yes votes
Senate passage this week would buy financial markets considerable
breathing room before February 27, when the U.S. Treasury expects to
exhaust existing borrowing capacity, putting federal payments at
Without an increase in the statutory debt limit, the U.S. government
would soon default on some of its obligations and have to shut down
some programs, a historic move that would likely cause market
U.S. stocks reacted mildly to news of the House Republican decision
to drop any conditions on the debt limit. Wall Street stocks rose
for a fourth session as traders focused most of their attention on
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's first congressional testimony.
"It was a minor worry that an agreement wouldn't come. It's not a
big plus (for the market), but I'm glad this happened," said John
Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in
As stocks rose, bond prices retreated.
Republicans used the debt limit with great effectiveness in 2011 to
gain budget concessions, when a bitter standoff led to a deal
calling for $2.1 trillion in cuts to U.S. discretionary spending
over a decade. The fight also cost the United States its top-tier
credit rating from Standard & Poor's.
But the wrenching two-week government shutdown and debt limit battle
last October sapped the party's enthusiasm for another major
Instead of seeking big cuts to the Social Security and Medicare
benefit programs that Republicans blame for pushing up U.S. debt,
Boehner floated more modest proposed concessions, such as ordering
approval of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline and changes
to Obamacare insurance provisions.
But they too failed to gain enough Republican support to overcome
objections from Democrats.
The final plan to repeal cost-of-living cuts for non-disabled
military retirees was doomed from the start, lawmakers said, as many
conservatives objected to linking veterans to the debt ceiling, to
cost offsets and other issues. Many simply wanted the big deficit
reduction achieved in the past.
"If there's something attached to the debt ceiling, it should be
addressing the underlying problem, which is, we're spending too much
money," said Representative Jim Jordan, a conservative Republican
The episode showed Boehner still has difficulty exerting control
over his fractious caucus, in which conservatives backed by the Tea
Party movement hold considerable sway.
"Republicans can't unite behind one plan. And so as long as we do
that, we'll not be influencing the outcomes of issues like this,"
said Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas.
Conservative groups that egged on Republicans in the October
shutdown fight over Obamacare funding urged members to vote against
the debt limit increase.
Some Republicans wanted the debt limit issue behind them so they can
focus on more productive issues such as next year's annual spending
bills and bashing Obama's healthcare law, which they have repeatedly
tried to repeal.
Republican House leaders led off a news conference on Tuesday with
five lawmakers complaining about the latest Obamacare mandate delay
for medium-sized companies.
In a somewhat cryptic sign that Boehner himself may be relieved to
put the debt limit behind him, he walked out of the news conference
singing the opening words to "Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah," the marquee song
from the 1946 Disney film "Song of the South."
(Reporting by David Lawder, Richard
Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Thomas Ferraro in Washington, and Rodrigo
Campos in New York; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, James Dalgleish, Dan
Grebler and Peter Cooney)