Fourteen Senate Republicans on Thursday helped advance a deal negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to set up a one-time exemption to the filibuster on raising the debt ceiling.
Senators voted 64-36 to close debate on the bill, which also prevents automatic cuts faced by physicians and other medical providers under Medicare from taking effect.
McConnell and GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Cornyn (Texas), Joni Ernst (Iowa) Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Thom Tillis (N.C.), John Thune (S.D.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) helped advance the bill.
The bill, which could pass the Senate as soon as Thursday, sets up a fast-track process for bypassing the 60-vote legislative filibuster on a bill to raise the debt ceiling, letting Democrats raise it on their own. The vote on the debt hike bill is expected to take place by Dec. 15, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned Congress will hit a cliff for keeping the government solvent.
Though leadership had expressed public confidence for days they would be able to deliver at least 10 GOP votes, the deal, negotiated by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sparked fresh divisions among Senate Republicans just two months after a bruising fight over a short-term debt hike.
Former President Trump knocked McConnell for not weaponizing the debt ceiling against Biden’s broader legislative agenda, saying that “the old crow is a disaster,” a reference to his preferred nickname for his one-time ally. And McConnell faced grumbling from members in back-to-back closed-door lunches ahead of the vote this week.
Several GOP senators spoke out during a Tuesday lunch to voice concerns, according to GOP senators who attended the meeting, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump’s, offered frank criticism at the caucus lunch on Wednesday.
“This idea puts all of us in a box, and I don’t appreciate it. And I won’t forget it,” Graham said. “I like you. Sen. McConnell has been a great Republican leader … but this has been a moment where I want to be on the record to say, ‘I don’t like this.'”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) signaled that he was sympathetic to McConnell’s responsibilities as leader, but questioned a deal where only a minority would be supporting it.
“'No' is a bad vote, and 'yes' a bad vote,” Cramer said. “My biggest point is from a political standpoint … it’s better to have a plan that 40 Republicans will vote for … then having 10 Republicans be a 'yes' vote and marginalizing them.”
Republican senators launched a last-ditch effort to effectively quash the deal by trying to separate the rules setting up the simple-majority debt ceiling vote.
A group of conservative senators, led by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), tried to instead pass a bill to prevent the Medicare cuts. Graham separately tried to get an agreement to strip the debt ceiling instructions out of the House-passed bill.
Both efforts were blocked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who warned that, “What my colleague … wishes to do is rip up an agreement reached between Democrats and Republicans, specific colleagues, Sen. Schumer and McConnell.”
Part of the kvetch for Republicans is a concern the strategy effectively puts them in a lose-lose position: They are loath to be viewed as helping Democrats raise the debt ceiling but they also know that voting “no” on Thursday could open the door for future attack ads characterizing them as voting to cut Medicare.
The deal delays Medicare cuts, including reductions to provider reimbursements, that would have started on Jan. 1, as well as a broader set of Medicare cuts that would have impacted areas like farm subsidies and military retirement funds.
“Americans may be poorer since President Biden took office but they are not stupid. They look around Washington, D.C., and they see liars and they see frauds in every direction,” Kennedy said.
“A deal has been made to give us … a choice between voting for a heart attack or cancer. You either have to give your principles on the debt limit or you have to cut Medicare and hurt our farmers and no one wants to do that,” he added.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) accused leadership of holding Medicare “hostage to political games.”
But even as conservatives, and Trump, pushed back over the agreement, Thursday’s vote lacked much of the high-stakes, down-to-the-wire drama that an October fight, where Republicans were locking down votes until the last minute.
“I am confident we’ll have the votes,” Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said as he left the Capitol on Wednesday night.
McConnell appeared to have the 10 votes he needed locked down by Wednesday night, when Tillis, Burr and Portman each indicated that they would join the group of Republicans to help the agreement get over Thursday’s procedural hurdle.
GOP leadership views the deal as a win because it sets up a vote where Democrats will raise the debt ceiling on their own, includes a fast-track process and requires that Democrats raise the debt limit to a specific number rather than suspending it to a date.
Each of those three features, GOP leaders argue, are similar to what Republicans pushed for months as their preferred option: Democrats raising the debt ceiling on their own through reconciliation, a budget process that lets them bypass a filibuster.
Republicans are also eager to keep the focus on Biden’s climate and social spending plan, which they view as a more potent target heading into 2022.