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Republicans take charge of party after debt vote

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the Republicans who joined the Democratic majority Wednesday to force a vote on raising the debt ceiling until 2015.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Republican leaders took control of their party this week, pushing aside Tea Party hardliners to put an end to more than three years of fiscal brinkmanship that constantly rattled global financial markets.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led a small group of senior Republicans that gave Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid the votes he needed Wednesday to advance legislation that will suspend the U.S.'s debt ceiling until March, 2015.

Mr. McConnell's move irritated the conservative militants in his caucus. Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born senator from Texas who identifies with the Tea Party, had earlier blocked the Senate from moving straight to a vote on raising the debt limit. That forced Mr. Reid to seek out five Republican votes to get the 60 needed to end procedural delays.

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"It showed tremendous courage," Bob Corker, a moderate Republican senator from Tennessee, said of Mr. McConnell's decision. Mr. McConnell, who represents Kentucky, is up for re-election in November and is facing a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate for the Republican nomination.

The Tea Party's willingness to challenge incumbents has pushed the Republican Party to the right since 2010. Virtually every money vote became a showdown as the Tea Party upstarts in Congress demanded harsh spending cuts that no Democratic lawmaker could possibly make. In 2011, the gridlock and dysfunction prompted credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's to strip the U.S. of its highest score.

Politics now are shifting. The government shutdown that Republican hardliners forced last year played poorly with the public, and polls showed that voters tended to blame Republicans.

Congress responded by passing its first budget in years at the end of 2013. Earlier this month, lawmakers agreed on renewed farm policy that had languished for two years.

The motion in the Senate to end the filibuster passed 67 to 31. Republicans avoided an official endorsement of a higher debt ceiling, as the actual vote on expanding the Treasury's borrowing authority was 55 to 43.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told lawmakers last week that he would run out of ways to stay under the U.S.'s current debt ceiling by the end of the month. That would set up the U.S. to default on debt payments, a scenario that Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen this week said would be "catastrophic."

House Speaker John Boehner moved first to change tack when he and a couple of dozen Republican colleagues sided with the Democratic minority in the chamber to raise the debt limit in a surprising vote Tuesday evening.

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Mr. Reid moved quickly to take advantage of any momentum created by Mr. Boehner's decision, although he might have been aided as much by Mother Nature as worry over the consequences of a potential default.

With a snowstorm bearing down on Washington, politicians had reason to worry about being stranded in the capital ahead of a break next week in the legislative calendar. After the debt-limit legislation passed, Mr. Reid moved to wrap up the Senate's business and wished his colleagues safe flights home.

The change in direction by Republican leaders reflects the midterm elections in November. Somewhat unexpectedly, Republicans have a legitimate shot at winning the majority in the Senate.

Broad displeasure over Mr. Obama's health-care overhaul has given the party a platform on which to mount a strong campaign in an election that historically goes against the sitting president. Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the Senate and there will be contests in seven states where their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, won in 2012.

But that strategy will require keeping the focus on Mr. Obama's health policies, and off the Republicans' penchant for obstruction. Mr. McConnell risked handing ammunition to his primary challenger knowing that he has a chance to be rewarded as the new majority leader in 2015.

"It was a courageous act, especially by Senator McConnell who we all know is in a very tough race," said John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. "He knows he's the leader. He is the elected Republican leader and it was up to him to cast the right vote."

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More

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