The debt legislation was clearly designed to die: It was considered under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote for passage. That precaution proved unnecessary as all Republicans voted against it and only 97 Democrats voted in favor (with seven voting “present”), even though 114 had earlier signed a letter to the Speaker urging such a clean vote.
While it is easy to dismiss the Senate votes on the Ryan and Obama budgets and the House vote on a free-standing debt limit bill as clever political stunts designed to embarrass the other party, the staged events did serve other purposes.
The Senate Majority Leader’s push for a vote on the House GOP budget resolution was obviously aimed at further highlighting and exploiting what Democrats hope to sell to voters as a radical attempt by Republicans to privatize Medicare. Yet it was also an early signal to House Republicans that their budget plans have no traction in the Senate, and negotiations will be necessary if the two chambers are to end up on the same budget page.
The vote on the president’s budget was designed to impress on him the need to get more serious about deficit reduction: He was still missing in action on entitlement reforms.
The House debt limit vote not only signaled to the president that the separate vote on the debt limit increase he had urged was not a viable option, but it also gave House tea party Republicans an early chance to forcefully register their opposition to raising the debt limit without accompanying spending reductions.
The debt vote did help refocus attention on the importance of the bipartisan deficit reduction negotiations taking place under Vice President Joseph Biden. The two-trick pony acts played an instructive lead-up role to that main event.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.