The House and Senate votes this week to raise the federal debt ceiling to avoid the threat of default highlighted what a New York Times analyst called the "Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus" in Congress.
Debt ceiling legislation passed in the GOP-controlled House with only 28 Republican "yes" votes. Times reporter Carl Hulse said that "was the lowest percentage for a majority on passage since the House began publishing electronic data on votes in 1991."
The Senate struggled to close off debate with the required 60 votes until GOP leaders relented and provided the handful of votes needed to bring up the legislation for an actual vote.
"The results in both the Senate and House," Hulse concluded, "illustrate the countervailing political forces at work on Capitol Hill and how the current partisan environment makes governing so difficult."
Hulse says many congressional Republicans, especially political conservatives, are fearful that voting for a debt limit increase, with or without strings, will become an open invitation for a primary election challenge. At the same time, Hulse said, they are relieved the measure passed so they weren't stuck with the blame for whatever market crisis would result when the U.S. Treasury ran out of cash.
Hulse said the Republicans in Congress have devolved into the "Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus."
The debt limit vote could be a foreshadowing of a similar dance without a partner on immigration reform. Republicans don't want to vote for a bill that will anger political conservatives, but don't want to deepen the alienation between the GOP and emerging political blocs, such as Latino voters.
GOP House Speaker John Boehner finds himself in the frequently untenable position of having no Republican consensus on issues such as a debt ceiling bill with strings or the Violence Against Women Act. Hulse says Boehner is willing to bust the so-called Hastert Rule and allow important bills to come to the House floor without a majority of Republican votes. The 28 Republican votes for the latest increase to the debt ceiling may stretch the Hastert Rule into meaninglessness. There were 87 Republicans who sided with minority Democrats to pass the Violence Against Women Act.
For now, immigration reform has been sidelined again. Boehner says his caucus doesn't want to touch the subject because they don't trust President Obama enforcing the new law, if passed. That after Obama signaled a willingness to consider a GOP proposal to provide a path to legal status, not citizenship, for the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in the country now.
Unlike the debt limit, which had a real clock, not a political timepiece to prod action, immigration reform is just out there. Republicans with few Latino voters in their districts have little motivation to budge, even if Republicans with national ambitions see a need to act.
And so, Hulse says, "it will remain hard for either party to post legislative victories if lawmakers continue to see it in their interest to oppose measures they really want to pass."