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Congress extends US borrowing authority until 2015

US Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky talks with a staff member as he walks to participate in a cloture vote to end debate in the Senate on a bill to raise the debt limit at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2014
US Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky talks with a staff member as he walks to participate in a cloture vote to end debate in the Senate on a bill to raise the debt limit at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2014

Lawmakers approved a 13-month extension of US borrowing authority with no strings attached Wednesday, shelving a fractious political debate over the nation's debt ceiling until after November's mid-term elections.

With last-minute help from Republican leaders to overcome a blocking effort, the Senate passed the legislation 55-43, marking a dramatic victory for President Barack Obama, who had demanded a debt ceiling hike with no political riders or other legislation attached.

The measure, which cleared the House of Representatives Tuesday, now goes to the White House for Obama's signature.

An uncomplicated extension of borrowing authority without other conditions would mark a shift away from recent confrontations that brought the world's largest economy to the brink of default, culminating in the US government being shuttered for 16 days in October.

It could also avoid the turmoil that rocked US and international markets during the previous debt limit fights.

But the bill was nearly torpedoed in a tense procedural vote minutes earlier, when the Senate's Republican leaders struggled to help muster the 60 votes necessary to overcome a blocking tactic known as a filibuster from fiscal conservatives within their ranks.

By the end of an unusually long vote that lasted a full hour, 12 Republicans joined all Democrats to advance the bill. However, no Republicans backed its final passage, which required a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber.

"What needed to get done, got done," said Senator Bob Corker, one of the dozen Republicans who helped move the bill forward.

US Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas walks to participate in a cloture vote to end debate in the Senate on a bill to raise the debt limit until March 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2014
US Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas walks to participate in a cloture vote to end debate in the Senate on a bill to raise the debt limit until March 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2014

"At the end of the day there was no stated outcome by any way other than a clean debt ceiling."

US debt stands at $17.3 trillion, and the Treasury estimates it would exhaust borrowing capacity on February 27 without new authority.

With Congress fleeing Washington early to avoid a looming snow storm, and a recess scheduled for next week, lawmakers had precious few legislative days to reach a solution before the deadline.

Corker said he and other Republicans had to swallow the bitter pill of allowing a debt ceiling bill to move ahead without any federal spending cuts attached.

In recent years, Republicans led by House Speaker John Boehner have sought to link debt ceiling hikes to measures that slashed spending.

But with House conservatives recoiling from various sweeteners floated by Boehner in recent weeks, and party leadership loathe to be blamed for another fiscal crisis, the speaker capitulated Tuesday and moved to raise the debt ceiling with no spending cuts attached.

Several Senate Republicans knew they would need to allow the bill's passage or risk potential fiscal chaos.

"We can put the country through two weeks of turmoil, or we can get this vote behind us," Corker said.

- Focus back on Obamacare -

Some Republicans, mindful of the bruising their party received when a majority of Americans blamed them for the government shutdown and other recent fiscal crises, said suspension of the debt ceiling allows them to focus on a more politically viable talking point during this year's congressional campaigns: the disastrous rollout of the president's health care reform law.

"We think Obamacare is a very important issue," Senator John McCain told reporters.

Republicans stand united in their effort to repeal or defund the legislation that has become the president's landmark domestic initiative.

"We have an alternative, we want to push that alternative, and that's what we want the conversation to be about. That was primarily the driving factor," McCain added.

That may have influenced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his number two, Senator John Cornyn -- two lawmakers vehemently opposed to a "clean" debt ceiling hike with no federal spending cuts -- in their decision to rally fellow Republicans to prevent the measure's collapse.

"They were leaders," Republican Senator Mark Kirk said of the pair. "Members didn't want to say yes to more debt, I understand that."

But McConnell and Cornyn "felt another debt crisis was not in the interest of the country," Kirk said.

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