Democrats May Have Won the Debt Ceiling, But Not Political Capital

Congress raised the debt ceiling, possibly its last bipartisan act of the year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.

The passage of the debt ceiling bill doesn't mean Democrats will make similar headway with their other agenda items.

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The Senate voted 55 to 43 Wednesday to raise the debt ceiling more than two weeks ahead of the deadline, marking an end to a string of budget battles that have paralyzed Washington over the last three years. Democratic and Republican leaders voted in unison, ensuring the country didn't default on its debt, but it may be one of the last times Congress comes together this year. 

The nail-biting vote hung in the balance for nearly an hour as Republican lawmakers clambered over who among them would provide the votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle. Most notably, Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both facing re-election with primary challengers in 2014, helped move the vote forward.

[READ: Republicans Give Up Fight on Debt Ceiling]

When President Barack Obama signs the bill to increase the country’s borrowing limit this week, it will mark a victory for Democrats on a major economic battle. After rounds of debt ceiling showdowns, the president is left standing firm in his promise that he would not negotiate over the “full faith and credit of the United States.”

He didn't get there alone, however. House Democrats provided the bulk of the votes ensuring passage in the lower body Tuesday, after House Speaker John Boehner decided to forge ahead on a clean vote despite conservative groups' objections. Before the vote. 
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised Boehner she’d put up a large enough volume of Democratic votes to protect his right flank and embattled Republican rank-and file from having to be on record increasing the debt ceiling, a vote conservative campaign groups hammer against in primary elections. Pelosi got all but two of her members to vote ‘yes’ so Boehner could let all but 28 of his members vote ‘no.’

Republican leaders stepped up to move the president’s request forward and ensure efficiency in an era of divided government this time, but don’t expect it to last. even though Democrats have a long list of agenda items they would like to tackle before the midterm election. The wish list includes:  increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, extending long-term unemployment insurance and sending a comprehensive immigration bill to the president’s desk before November. But even after Democrats managed to pass a  debt ceiling bill without any policy strings attached, they aren’t in a stronger position to lobby for their legislation. Congress remains in an election cycle, which typically slows the body's appetite for passing new laws and hinders bipartisan cooperation. House aides confirmed Boehner won’t be adopting the debt ceiling strategy to pass a comprehensive immigration bill anytime soon.

“This doesn’t create any real political capital for Democrats,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. “It simply needed to be done.”

[OPINION: Boehner Gets the Debt Ceiling 'Monkey' Off the GOP's Back]

If anything, the lack of drama over the debt ceiling could be a political liability for Democrats. With the debt ceiling vote out of the way, Republicans have more room to attack Democrats on the campaign trail for their support of the unpopular Affordable Care Act and stagnant growth in the economy.

“This was the last deadline bill, the last drop dead bill. Now we can focus on whatever bills Republicans want to bring up,” says Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

King argues that by forcing Democrats to put up the majority of the votes, some of the tea party Republicans are the ones who are walking away with the political capital. They avoided the calamity of a debt default without being held accountable for raising the debt ceiling in primaries back home. While Boehner gave many Republicans the option to tie the debt ceiling vote to a policy item, Republicans didn't want to vote for anything that forced them to vote in support of increasing the country's borrowing limit.


“All these great geniuses who came to Washington to vote to reduce the deficit and cut spending were begging John Boehner to have this go to a clean vote,” King said. “It was total hypocrisy.”

Adding to the Democrats' woes is that the debt ceiling vote is likely to fall low on the list of items voters are paying attention to. Experts observe the public notices if the country defaults, but most voters are not tuned in enough to know that Democrats won any debate.

“No one wants to talk about debt,” says Binder.