WASHINGTON -- Republicans' new acquiescence to letting the government pile up more debt with no strings attached paid double political dividends: It spared the GOP another politically debilitating showdown with President Barack Obama and also forced Democrats to cast votes that rivals immediately used against them in this year's midterm elections.
The GOP's top priority is maintaining its House majority and seizing control of the Senate, and the political strategy is to keep it simple -- talk incessantly about Obama's unpopular health care law and avoid cataclysmic fights like the one that led to last fall's 16-day partial government shutdown.
That largely rules out the contentious issue of overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
Both House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., convinced many in their GOP caucus to accept legislation lifting the nation's borrowing authority with no concessions from the Obama administration. Gone were demands for the Keystone XL pipeline, repeal of the health care law and even a popular plan to reverse the pension cut for working-age military retirees.
Republicans wanted to avoid the drama of a possible default and the political fallout from last year's government shutdown. Facing a Feb. 27 deadline from the Treasury, they acted swiftly, realizing that there was no negotiating with the White House or Democrats on the issue. Boehner, who has often struggled with his fractious caucus, including a strong lineup of tea partyers, got grudging respect from conservatives.
"I think it's always better to have something that is straightforward than smoke and mirrors," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who didn't like the idea of attaching the military retiree provision to the debt limit bill. He added that Boehner was better off with his final strategy.
"It's much more honest to have a straightforward vote," Mulvaney said.
The House passed the debt limit bill with 193 Democratic votes and 28 Republican on Tuesday. Boehner and several other members of the leadership along with a handful of retiring congressmen provided the GOP votes.
"I think the speaker did the only thing that he could do," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "If you have certain votes that are going to be cast one way, and that's the only way they're going to go and there's no negotiation, then your hands become tied, depending on how many votes that is."
Immigration has no deadline and House Republicans from predominantly white districts see no political imperative to act this year. They fear days of divisive, internal debate over the issue could undercut their standing, especially with core conservative voters. Despite a desire to act, Boehner all but ruled out immigration this year, blaming his Republicans' distrust of Obama to enforce any new laws.
The debt-limit outcome left some outside groups grumbling, with the Tea Party Patriots demanding Boehner's ouster and railing against "go-along-to-get-along capitulation," but no loud voices in the GOP caucus threatened the speaker's standing. At least one Republican had suggested that if Boehner brought up immigration, his speakership was in jeopardy.
Immigration advocates argue that the strategy is shortsighted.
"Why did they go forward on the debt ceiling vote? Because they think their electoral future was at stake," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "If they don't take the window of opportunity to move forward on immigration this year, their electoral future is in doubt. Not in 2014, but in 2016 and beyond. So it may make it more comfortable for them in the short run, but it could doom them in the long run."
In 2016, Republicans will be defending 24 of 34 Senate seats, with several races in states with fast-growing Hispanic populations such as Florida and Arizona.
In the Senate this week, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz demanded a 60-vote threshold to move ahead on the debt limit bill, forcing Republican leaders such as McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn to reluctantly deliver the votes. The maneuvering opened McConnell to criticism from the tea party and his Republican primary challenger, Matt Bevin.
"Outside of Washington, just about every American understands we can't keep going on the path we're on," said Cruz, who along with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, precipitated last fall's shutdown over demands for Obama to gut his health care law. "We're bankrupting the country. And it's irresponsible to our kids, and it's irresponsible to our grandkids."
Other Senate Republicans saw no positive outcome to Cruz's strategy.
"At the end of the day you still have to deal with the fact that you can't let the country default," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. "What's the other strategy? Default? See how the world reacts to that, see what the stock market does?"
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the choice was clear.
"We can put the country through two weeks of turmoil, or we can get this vote behind us," he said.
By the end of the day on Wednesday, the bill lifting the borrowing authority passed on a party-line Senate vote of 55-43. Republican candidates moved quickly to criticize incumbent Democrats who voted for the legislation.
"With a national debt over $17.3 trillion or $54,000 for every American, we are clearly on an unsustainable fiscal path," said Dan Sullivan, who is looking to oust Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. "Instead of righting that course, Senator Begich voted today to send a blank check to President Obama, allowing the federal government to recklessly spend money we don't have."