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House Passes 'Clean' Debt Limit Bill

A woman looks at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 31 in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin
A woman looks at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 31 in Washington.

Tuesday saw a rarity in Congress these days: a "clean" bill.

The House passed one to raise the debt limit, a move that avoids a possible default later this month.

In the past, House Republicans have used this debate to extract concessions from President Obama and congressional Democrats.

But not this time. House Republicans demanded nothing in return. The House passed the no-strings-attached debt hike Tuesday evening — though just 28 Republicans voted with the Democratic minority to pass the extension, 221 votes to 201 votes.

"Our members are not crazy about voting to increase the debt ceiling," said Speaker John Boehner, after huddling behind closed doors with fellow House Republicans for the second time in less than a day.

Call it the understatement of the year. Boehner went on to acknowledge that despite days of efforts, he and his fellow GOP leaders had failed to find something they could add to a debt ceiling bill that would make it palliative enough to get a majority of 218 Republicans to vote for it.

Instead, Boehner had to turn to Plan B: bringing a bill to the House floor for a vote that suspends the debt limit for another year with no strings attached, just as President Obama had demanded. And even though it's Congress that approves all spending, Boehner blamed the debt entirely on the president.

"It's the president driving up the debt and the president wanting to do nothing about the debt that's occurring. He will not engage in our long-term spending problem, and so let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants," said Boehner.

In the debt ceiling showdown of the summer of 2011, the speaker prevailed with what became known as the Boehner rule: for every dollar the debt ceiling was raised, another dollar of spending had to be cut. A reporter asked him Tuesday if that Boehner rule is now dead:

"I would hope not. As I've said before, this is a lost opportunity. We could have sat down and worked together on a bipartisan manner to find cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit."

While the House GOP retreat on the debt ceiling was a big win for the White House, there was not a lot of dancing in the end zone going on there Tuesday. At a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling simply hailed the clean debt limit bill as a good sign.

"What the president has long said is that the era of threatening default has to be over, that the era of anyone threatening the full faith and credit of the United States has to be over because it's not a partisan issue," Sperling said.

But many Republicans in Congress don't see it that way.

"I cannot vote for a clean debt ceiling. It's something that I have, that is a commitment that I have made to my constituents, that there has to be something in it that's worth voting for, if I'm going to raise the debt ceiling and increase the credit card," said Renee Ellmers, a Republican House member from North Carolina.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to bring up the debt ceiling measure quickly for a vote.

"In the meantime, I commend Speaker Boehner for doing the right thing. I hope this common sense approach will continue throughout the year so we can actually get some things done," Reid said.

But like their House counterparts, Senate Republicans showed little inclination to vote for the no-strings-attached extension. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, said he would probably not vote for the clean debt measure.

Another Senate Republican, Arizona's John McCain, said the House GOP's capitulation on the debt ceiling showed a lesson was learned from last fall's government shutdown about the perils of provoking government crises.

"I think it made them realize that you don't do things like shut down the government, because the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of such a thing," McCain said.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.