This was a vote on a motion to suspend the rules and pass legislation that would have increased the U.S. public debt limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion. When this vote occurred, the federal government’s debt had exceeded its “statutory limit” – in other words, the amount of money the country can be in debt. In order for the federal government to borrow more money, it needed to increase its debt limit.
Motions to suspend the rules limit time allowed for debate, and prohibit members from offering amendments. A two-thirds vote is required to approve the motion and pass a bill, rather than the usual majority.
In the debate leading up to this vote, Republicans had demanded cuts to social programs—including Medicare--in return for their votes to raise the debt limit. President Obama and most congressional Democrats opposed placing any conditions on such a measure. House Republicans brought up –and unanimously voted against--this bill, which increased the debt limit but did not contain any spending cuts.
House Republican leaders argued that the vote was a symbolic effort to prove to President Obama that Congress would not raise the debt limit without imposing deep cuts to social programs.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) voted in favor of the bill, but criticized Republicans for bringing the measure up under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is normally reserved for noncontroversial legislation: “We are playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun in the American economy, and the deficit clock is ticking. This requires a substantial response. The approach taken, a suspension vote, trivializes both our short-term obligation to pay our bills and our long-term obligation to have a long-term deficit reduction plan.”
Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), opposed his own bill: “Today, we are making clear that Republicans will not accept an increase in our nation's debt limit without substantial spending cuts and real budgetary reforms. This vote, a vote based on legislation I have introduced, will and must fail. Now, most members aren't happy when they bring a bill to the floor and it fails, but I consider defeating an unconditional increase to be a success because it sends a clear and critical message that the Congress has finally recognized we must immediately begin to rein in America's affection for deficit spending.”
Many Democrats who supported raising the debt limit voted against this bill as a protest against what they viewed as crude political stunt. In fact, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) urged Democratic House members to vote against the measure. Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin reported: “House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is urging his colleagues to vote down today's ‘clean’ debt limit extension to deprive the GOP of a political win, even though he and the majority of his caucus publicly favor the legislation….While the legislation is exactly what most Democrats want to see pass, Republicans are bringing it to the floor with the expectation that it will fail -- likely with unanimous GOP opposition. The point of the vote is to divide progressive and conservative Democrats and bolster Republican arguments that major cuts are needed to successfully pass a debt ceiling hike.”
Hoyer spoke in opposition to the bill: “ Ladies and gentlemen, this issue is an important issue that is being treated not as an adult….this is not an honest debate. This is not an honest proposal….We need to deal with this issue [the debt limit]…seriously, not in 20-minute debates on each side, not as a simplistic suggestion that somehow President Obama caused this….I'm going to vote `no' on this.”
Some Democrats voted “present” to protest the manner in which Republicans brought up the bill. Among those voting present was Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), who said: “Republicans are willing to jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States of America, exposing us to great potential economic harm. They think the President will once again yield to their ransom demands…Don't yield to this maneuver, Mr. President. Say `no' to gimmicks and say `yes' to Medicare, one of the best programs ever initiated by this Congress to ensure a little retirement security.”
The House rejected this bill by a vote of 97-318. 97 Democrats, including a majority of progressives, voted “yea.” All 236 Republicans present and 82 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the House rejected a bill that would have increased the public debt limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion. While the U.S. did not immediately default on its public debt as a result of this bill having failed, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had indicated the U.S. could default on its debt on August 2, 2011, if Congress did not vote to raise the debt limit.