This was a vote on Republican-sponsored legislation that would have prevented the Obama Administration from raising the federal debt limit. Successful passage would have forced the federal government to shut down and jeopardized its ability to pay its debts.
Early in 2012, President Obama notified Congress that he intended to raise the federal debt limit. Under the terms of a deal struck the previous year between Congress and the White House, the Obama Administration was free to raise the debt limit unless the House and Senate voted to prevent it.
Increasing the federal debt limit does not actually increase government spending; rather, it can be thought of as an action that preserves the government’s ability to pay the bills it has already accumulated. Most policy experts agree that failure to raise the debt limit when necessary would lead to a government shutdown and a default with far-reaching, devastating economic consequences. Even so, “political leaders of both parties have often indulged in partisan gamesmanship with the debt limit,” according to the nonpartisan Concord Coalition.
Congressional Republicans prepared legislation that would have prevented the Obama Administration from raising the debt limit. House Republicans, joined by a handful of Democrats, passed the Republican legislation on a 239-176 vote.
The Senate’s turn came on January 26, 2012, with Senate Roll Call 2. This was a vote on whether to consider the House’s resolution forbidding an increase in the debt ceiling. Supporters of the resolution argued that it would put the brakes on unnecessary government spending.
“Americans do not want this oversized government. Americans do not want or need job-stifling tax hikes. Americans do not need the Federal Government running their lives and making their choices,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). “Allowing the debt limit to rise would only serve to promote things that Americans do not want and that Americans do not need.”
Meanwhile, opponents of the resolution pointed out that by failing to raise the debt limit, Congress would actually cause an increase in the debt while failing to honor the nation’s commitments through programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
“Passing this resolution would mean there would be no money to keep our promises. The United States would default for the first time in its history,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) said. “This is clearly the wrong time to take an action that would leave the United States to be placed in default. There would be disastrous consequences for our economy alone, irrespective of the repercussions and reverberations around the world, especially Europe.”
By rejecting the motion on a 44-52 vote, the Senate chose not to even bring the House Republicans’ legislation up for a vote. Voting “yea” were 42 Republicans and 2 Democrats. Voting “nay” were 51 Democrats, including a majority of progressives, and 1 Republican. This effectively killed the resolution and cleared the way for the president to raise the debt ceiling to $16.39 trillion, preserving the federal government’s ability to operate and pay its debts. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) joined Democrats in opposing the motion. Joining Republicans in supporting it were Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ben Nelson (D-NE).