WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to raise the government’s debt ceiling and cut trillions of dollars from its spending, concluding a long and fractious partisan battle just hours before the government’s borrowing authority was set to run out.
The bill, which passed 74-26, was immediately signed by President Barack Obama, who took a final shot at his Republican opposition for what he called a manufactured — and avoidable — crisis.
“Voters may have chosen divided government,” he said, “but they sure didn’t vote for dysfunctional government.”
Voters will render their verdicts on the merits of divided government next year, but its impact is now abundantly clear: The agenda of the 112th Congress will be dominated by continuous fighting over spending priorities and regulation, with a high bar for big debates on foreign policy and other domestic issues coming to the fore.
“When was the last time anybody said anything about Libya?” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., who was elected in 2002. “This is the way it is going to be until the election.”
In the seven months since the change of power in the House, the Washington discourse has shifted almost completely from the decades-long battle between both parties over how to allocate government resources to jousting over the moral high ground on imposing austerity, with seemingly none of the political or practical motivations that have historically driven legislation.
Republicans, though controlling only one-third of the process through their majority in the House, appear to have firmly snagged the upper hand in the legislative dynamics, largely because of their unwillingness to sacrifice ground even when their stance threatens both the government’s ability to operate and pay its debts, and their own prospects for retaining their jobs.
“The difference is the intensity here,” said David R. Mayhew, a political science professor at Yale. “The Republicans have the Tea Party, and the Democrats don’t have anything of comparable animation on their side.”
Democrats, hamstrung in part by congressional procedures and hewing to more traditional methods of compromise and negotiation, allowed Republicans to pull the center of debate much closer to their priorities.
“We could draw parallels and distinctions with other tumultuous times such as the Civil War,” Glen Browder, a former congressman from Alabama and professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University, said in an email. “But I do believe that this is something different from most Democrat-Republican struggles in our recent history. The traditional game of politics in which the two sides contest over control of issues and decisions for core constituencies has erupted into an intense struggle with critical ideological/philosophical divisions about what America means and how America ought to work.”