WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill on Monday evening to cut spending by $2.1 trillion and raise the debt ceiling until 2013, just one day before the Aug. 2 deadline by which the government was set to begin defaulting on its loans.
The deal passed mostly on the backs of House Republicans, with 269 votes for the deal and 161 against it. Among the 240 Republicans, 174 supported the bill.
House Democrats were furious, with some members calling the bill a “Satan sandwich” and most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus vowing to vote against it. In the end, however, 95 Democrats voted to support the bill, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is recovering from a gunshot wound.
By approving the bill, which should easily pass the Senate on Tuesday, the House allowed the government to avoid a historic default on the nation’s loans. But first, it had to anger plenty of progressives on the left and Tea Partiers on the right, both of whom opposed the deal.
Leadership on both sides insisted that though the deal was not perfect, it made the best of a difficult situation. With the House led by Republicans and the Senate and White House led by Democrats, Congress was gridlocked for months over how to raise the debt ceiling, with congressional Republicans walking away from the negotiating table multiple times.
By Sunday, when a deal had been cemented, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faced a tough task: selling the bill to his conference, many of whom have opposed raising the debt limit unless tied to passage of a balanced budget amendment. Conservative members of the House GOP conference revolted against a debt ceiling plan presented by Boehner last week, forcing him to revise the bill’s provision on the balanced budget amendment at the last minute to win more votes.
The final deal includes a requirement to vote on the balanced budget amendment, making it more like the original Boehner bill. But he insisted to his members that it brought them closer to passage of the amendment than ever before.
“This gives us the best shot that we’ve had in the 20 years that I’ve been here,” Boehner said at a press conference Monday.
House Republican leaders also said the bill was a “big win” because it does not include revenue-increasing measures, such as tax hikes for the wealthy or closing loopholes for corporations.
“I think the big win here for us and for the American people is that there are no tax hikes in here,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.
Democrats, meanwhile, worried the bill was going too far by cutting spending and putting economic recovery at risk. Hours ahead of the vote, scores of Democrats left a caucus meeting fuming about the deal not reflecting any of their priorities, namely preserving entitlement programs and closing corporate tax loopholes.
“We ceded the whole moral ground on billionaires paying their fair share,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
Engel questioned why any Democrats should vote for a deal that could ultimately “decimate Medicare” and that hands big wins to Republicans while “taking for granted” Democratic votes. The bill will establish a “super Congress” that will be tasked with finding savings from entitlement programs, risking major, filibuster-proof changes to those programs.
“You know what we got? We avoided default. I’m glad we avoided default,” said the New York Democrat. “But if you had told me that this would be the package a month ago, I would have asked you what you had been smoking.”
Asked what she thinks of the deal, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) replied, “I don’t think. I cry.”
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) called the bill “terrible” and predicted it would lead to another 1 million private sector jobs lost. The bill cuts $917 billion from the deficit over the next decade, with billions coming in the first two years.
At the same time, Democrats said they struggled with wanting to support Obama’s efforts. “It’s our conscience versus our president,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). “It’s a bitch.”
By and large, Democrats headed into the vote ready for Boehner to take responsibility for securing votes since the bill was largely driven by extremist lawmakers in his party.
Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it was up to Boehner to whip his members into passing the bill. Asked if she though the House had the votes, Pelosi told reporters, “You’ll have to ask the Speaker. He’s in the majority.”
In the end, however, Pelosi held her nose and voted for the bill, along with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
In the Senate, many Democrats are expected to do the same.
“It’s a very hard compromise for people, but we recognize, I think a majority of us, the alternative is calamitous,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), summing up the thinking of many of her colleagues after Biden made his pitch to them. “I think this becomes a settlement of necessity rather than a settlement of favor.”
Still, some members of the caucus remained adamantly opposed even after Biden’s visit.
“There is deep disappointment by the American people that at time when the rich are becoming much richer and there are corporations making billions in profits and not paying a nickel in taxes that deficit reduction is taking place on the backs of children and the elderly, the sick and the poor,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think that that is a very unfortunate circumstance and I’m certainly not going to vote for it.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he’d vote against the bill, arguing that its cuts would inevitably come from programs that help the poor put food on the table and heat their homes, or would be aimed at federal agencies that Republicans don’t like, such as the EPA.
“The people who are really in a position where mercy is required … those are discretionary things that will be cut in the next budget cycle,” Lautenberg predicted. “To see that as helpful to our country is something I don’t understand.”