Senate approves debt ceiling measure

Tribune Washington Bureau Published:

WASHINGTON -- Congress gave final approval Wednesday to legislation allowing more federal borrowing to pay the nation's bills, but not without a dramatic scene in the Senate as Republican leaders scrambled to find enough votes to head off a filibuster attempt.

The House had swiftly approved the bill this week, and smooth passage was expected in the Senate, ending three years of partisan brinkmanship.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and a group of tea party allies brushed aside fellow Republicans' efforts to let the bill pass quietly. He insisted there was still time to devise a budget-cutting plan that Congress could adopt before Feb. 27, the date on which Treasury Department officials have said the government would be at risk of not having the money to pay its bills.

Cruz's strategy forced the GOP leadership into the uncomfortable position of finding at least five Republicans willing to vote to allow the debt ceiling bill to proceed.

Eventually, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with his top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas voted "aye." Then Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led several other GOP senators onto the floor, where many changed their votes.

Ultimately, 12 Republicans joined with Democrats in the 67-31 vote. Final passage of the debt ceiling measure came quickly afterward on a party-line tally of 55 to 43.

Cruz stood by his strategy, saying the vote provided "candor and clarity with the American people."

"Every Senate Republican should have stood together" against raising the debt ceiling, he said.

Separately, senators agreed, 95-3, to reverse cuts to some veterans' pensions. Members of both parties had agreed to the cuts as part of last year's budget accord, but they quickly regretted the vote after a sharp backlash from veterans groups.

The budget measure had been designed to reduce the rising costs of pensions for service members, who often can retire in their 40s. It would have held cost-of-living adjustments to 1 percent below the inflation rate for veterans younger than 62 who do not have service-related injuries. That proved politically unsustainable. Now, the cuts will fall only on service members who retire after 2014.

The House had passed the measure this week, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law.

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