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Key debt-limit vote sparks major fight among Senate Republicans

The Hill logo The Hill 10/8/2021 Alexander Bolton
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) heads to a Senate Republican luncheon on Thursday, October 7, 2021. © Greg Nash Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) heads to a Senate Republican luncheon on Thursday, October 7, 2021.

A key procedural vote to pave the way for a $480 billion increase in the debt limit sparked a major fight in the Senate GOP conference late Thursday afternoon that left Senate Republican leaders uncertain whether they had the 10 votes they need to avoid a major embarrassment on the Senate floor.

Though 11 Republican senators ultimately voted to advance the bill over a key hurdle, just hours earlier Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) had acknowledged to GOP colleagues during a 90-minute closed-door meeting in the Capitol that they did not yet have the 10 Republican votes needed to end a filibuster on a controversial debt limit deal and asked colleagues for help.

One Republican called the meeting "very contentious" and described "widespread frustration" in the room.

The lawmaker said McConnell and Thune both acknowledged that they didn't have the 10 votes they needed to reach 60 and overcome a filibuster to set up a final up-or-down vote on a debt limit deal McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Thursday morning.

The deal would require Democrats to vote to raise the debt limit to a higher fixed number instead of simply voting to suspend the debt ceiling until sometime after the 2022 midterm election.

If Congress votes to raise the debt limit by $480 billion, lawmakers would not have to grapple with the issue again until sometime in December or January.

A second Republican senator confirmed that McConnell acknowledged he wasn't certain he would have the 60 votes needed to let the deal proceed to a final up-or-down vote, which Schumer could pass with all 50 Democrats and no GOP support.

"He said, 'We'll see and that if we don't have the votes we'll be here this weekend,' " the lawmaker recalled, referring to McConnell's warning that colleagues would have to miss the start of the Columbus Day recess and stay in Washington until they found a way to resolve the impasse.

But the lawmaker said colleagues "felt much better" leaving the room after the long and tense meeting.

Thune told reporters immediately after the meeting that he thought the votes would be there when they were finally counted.

Asked if he would get 10 Republicans to vote "yes," Thune predicted "we will be fine."

He emphasized that no Republican would vote for final passage of the debt-limit deal.

"It's never easy," he said. "That's the nature of the beast. You know everybody also realizes sometimes you have to do the hard thing."

Several senators spoke up to indicate they would likely vote to end debate and allow the debt-limit deal to proceed to final passage.


Video: Senate to vote on debt ceiling, GOP vows to block (Reuters)

The expected "yes" votes coming out of the meeting were McConnell, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Thune said he would vote "yes" if his vote was absolutely needed. He ultimately voted "yes."

Tillis voted no on the floor, however, surprising colleagues.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who earlier in the day said he hoped Republicans wouldn't have to vote on ending a filibuster, also voted "yes."

"Is anybody excited about this deal? Sometimes you have to do things that you're not excited about to prevent something even worse," he said, referring to the danger of a national credit default.

"I'm hoping that we can avoid the cloture vote," he added, expressing his reluctance to cast a vote that will likely spark criticism from conservative pundits and activists.

Rounds after the Thursday afternoon meeting said that he had not made a final decision on how to vote that he had conversations with both McConnell and Thune late Thursday afternoon that led him to believe they were still scrambling for the 10 Republican votes until the final minute.

Some of the Republicans who said they would vote for the procedural measure were not at all happy about having to take such a tough vote.

Blunt, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, told colleagues that he advised McConnell weeks ago that he disagreed with his strategy to attempt to force Democrats to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit, according to lawmakers familiar with the discussion.

In the end, McConnell backed off by allowing them to raise the debt limit under regular order instead of forcing them to use the time-consuming budget reconciliation process, which could have eaten up nearly two weeks of floor time.

The high stakes strategy prompted extreme disappointment among some Republicans when Democrats stood firm, nearly provoking a debt crisis.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also criticized McConnell's strategy during the Thursday afternoon closed-door meeting.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the top-ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), a potential Republican candidate for president in 2024, slammed McConnell's strategy in the meeting and publicly.

Graham called the deal with Schumer a "capitulation" on Twitter.

"If Republicans intend to give Democrats a pass on using reconciliation to raise the debt limit - now or in the future - that would be capitulation," he tweeted Thursday morning.

"Why the hell would I make it easier for them to raise the debt ceiling through regular order? We had a strategy and we abandoned it," he later said.

Cruz accused his leadership of blinking and making a mistake.

"I believe Democratic Leader Schumer was on the verge of surrendering, and then unfortunately yesterday Republicans blinked. I think that was a mistake. I think that was the wrong decision," he said on the Senate floor.

"I will tell you the reason Republican leadership made that decision to blink was because Senate Democrats threatened to nuke the filibuster, to eliminate the filibuster. I don't know if that was real," he said.

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