Both parties hope to win by losing in gridlocked Congress

WASHINGTON–The House killed a high-stakes proposal Tuesday to raise the debt ceiling, a vote that carried economic repercussions, budget implications, and political fallout. But its fate was sealed well before the roll call even began.

On the off chance the bill could have garnered a simple majority in the House, Republican leaders decided to bring the debt-ceiling proposal up for a vote under a special procedure that required a super-majority–a threshold they knew the measure couldn’t hit. And because they knew it would fail, GOP leaders also set the vote for after 6:30 p.m., when the stock markets were closed, to limit the economic gyrations that could result.

For House Republicans, Tuesday’s vote was more about proving what couldn’t pass than about debating what could. It’s a popular tactic these days–winning political leverage by creating legislative gridlock.

Just last week, Senate Democrats eagerly pressed for a vote on the House GOP’s controversial budget plan-even as they were blasting the bill’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid knew the 2012 budget blueprint would be defeated before he scheduled the debate.

He did it to put Senate Republicans on the spot, forcing them to go on record for or against the GOP plan, which has become deeply unpopular among seniors. In turn, Senate Republicans brought up President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget request, which, as expected, went down in flames.

Political observers say the 112th Congress has held more intentional kill-the-bill votes than most. Earlier this spring, for example, Reid orchestrated a vote on $61 billion in proposed Republican budget cuts for fiscal year 2011, just to prove that it couldn’t get anywhere. “We want the American people to know that H.R. 1 is dead, and we’ll get there,” Reid said at the time. Senate Republicans then pushed for a vote on the Democrats’ 2011 spending alternative, which was also decisively defeated.

It’s a particularly stark turnaround from the last Congress, where Democrats controlled both chambers and used their power to churn out one legislative accomplishment after another. With Congress now sharply divided-Republicans control the House, and Democrats narrowly hold the Senate-staging political votes is about the best lawmakers can do, said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“Given the political coloration of the House and Senate, there isn’t much that will pass” both chambers, he said. “So it becomes a question of whether you do something or nothing.”

Take Tuesday’s vote to raise the debt ceiling, which went down by 318-to-97. Republicans have said they wouldn’t support raising the government’s ability to borrow more money, unless it’s tied to deep budget cuts that rein in annual deficits and tackle the nation’s mounting debt. Democrats have called for a “clean vote” on the debt ceiling–one that doesn’t include any broader budgetary measures which, they argue, require a more extended and thoughtful debate.

“In any rational world, we would raise the debt ceiling and then get back to the hard work of addressing the fiscal situation. But we’re not in a rational world,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who has been among the most vocal advocates of a straight up-or-down vote to increase debt ceiling.

Tonight, Himes and other Democrats got their shot at that “clean” vote-thanks to a measure crafted by Rep. Dave Camp, a Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Camp voted against his own bill, and the rest of the GOP conference did too.

House Democrats split, with 97 voting to raise the debt ceiling and 82 voting against it. Among Connecticut’s delegation, Himes voted yes, along with Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. Voting no were Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

So if it was set up to fail, what was the point?

“To me, it’s a very logical vote,” said ex-Rep. Chris Shays, a Republican who used to represent Connecticut’s 4th District. He said the final tally will serve as a “wake-up” call to the White House and let the president know Republicans “are serious that there’s got to be something more than a clean debt ceiling, that there’s got to be some control on spending.”

And just in time too. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with the House GOP caucus Wednesday, so Tuesday’s vote will be fresh in everyone’s mind as that session gets underway. And it gives Republicans extra ammunition in the closed-door budget talks being led by Vice President Joe Biden; those talks include top House and Senate leaders and are focused on crafting a budget compromise and debt-ceiling agreement.

The vote on the debt ceiling hands Republicans a new talking point in the ongoing battle for public opinion over how to grapple with the debt and spending questions. They can portray Democrats who voted for a clean debt-ceiling hike as willing to rack up more debt–and themselves as being more fiscally responsible. That could be a critical point if the budget negotiations collapse, and there’s an impasse on the debt ceiling, leading to a government default on U.S. loans.

“For Republicans now, they’re very nervous that we could have a confrontation over the debt limit, end up with a disastrous economic reaction by the markets, and that they will get blamed for being intransigent,” said Ornstein. “So what they’re trying to do now is establish the parameters-[by saying] ‘This isn’t just about raising the debt limit. It’s about dealing with the debt, and we’re going to be tough’.”

Larson called it a “a sham vote” that was “designed to create a 30-second ad.”

A similar motive was at play in the Senate last week, when Reid pushed for a vote on the House Republican budget plan. “The Democrats want to put Republicans between a rock and a hard place,” Ornstein said. “Are you going to vote for a plan that’s extremely unpopular with core senior voters? Or are you going to vote against it and enrage conservative Tea Party activists?”

Five Republicans joined Senate Democrats in quashing the measure, giving Senate Democrats a win-win. In the short-term, the vote signaled to House Republicans that such sweeping changes to Medicare are a no-go in the budget negotiations. And as a political bonus, they get campaign ad fodder to use in the next election against Republicans who supported the budget.

“They get political leverage, because it’s very clear that the Ryan plan is extremely unpopular,” Ornstein said, referring to Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and House budget chairman who drafted the GOP plan.

Shays said the Senate Democrats just wanted to “corner” their GOP counterparts and “have things to attack them on.” But even as he argued that the House GOP’s debt ceiling vote had more merit, Shays agreed that both sides were doing more posturing than legislating.

“You can’t seem to have a conversation about anything that matters anymore because it’ll be used against you,” Shays said.

Indeed, Ornstein said he expects more votes in which Senate Democrats or House Republicans vote to kill the opposing party’s plan–and then declare political victory–in the months to come. That doesn’t bode well, he said, for a budget breakthrough down the road.

Himes said it was too hard to say whether these short-term political ploys would prompt each side to dig in–or face reality and come together.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting people on the record with respect to how they feel about the Ryan plan or the debt ceiling. It’s the follow-up that matters,” Himes said.

“I don’t know if these [votes] inflame partisanship or if they move us toward a compromise,” he added. “But if the market falls 1,000 points tomorrow, my guess is the Republican leadership will be a little hesitant to play with gasoline and matches again. And maybe have a real discussion rather than a political one.”