This was a vote on a motion to table (kill) legislation relating to the U.S. debt limit (which simply refers to the amount of money the U.S. can legally be in debt). First, the bill raised the debt limit by $900 billion (to $15.2 trillion). This short-term increase in the debt ceiling would have effectively expired at the end of 2011. Congressional Democrats and President Obama had demanded an increase in the debt ceiling that would last through 2012.
Second, the bill required cuts to federal government programs totaling $917 billion. (The bill did not, however, specify which programs would be cut. Rather, the measure would have simply limited discretionary spending overall. Thus, decisions regarding cuts to specific programs would have been made by Congress and President Obama over the next few years.)
Third, the bill required Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. constitution before enacting any further increases in the debt limit. (Such an amendment would add a requirement in the U.S. constitution that the federal government balance its budget.) This bill, authored by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), had already passed the House of Representatives.
[In previous years, Congress had voted to increase the debt limit with little controversy or fanfare, regardless of which party controlled the House, Senate, or the White House. This year—in 2011—House Republicans, who held a majority in that chamber, refused to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agreed to deep spending cuts. While most economists argued that defaulting on the nation’s debt could bring about an economic catastrophe, Republicans effectively held the raising of the debt limit hostage until Obama and Congressional Democrats agreed to make major concessions with respect to spending cuts.]
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praised Boehner’s bill: “Over in the House of Representatives, we have the Speaker of the House doing his job. Speaker Boehner has been doing the hard work of governing, working day and night to put together a bill that can actually pass the House of Representatives and end this crisis now. He should be commended for his efforts. What about over here in the Senate? The contrast could not be starker. Rather than working in the last few days toward a solution to the crisis the way the Republican majority in the House has, the Democratic majority in the Senate has been wasting precious time rounding up `no' votes to keep this crisis alive….Our Democratic friends in the Senate have offered no solutions to this crisis that could pass either Chamber--not one. Instead, all day long yesterday we got chest-thumping comments about how they are going to kill any piece of legislation that comes over from the House, that it is dead on arrival.”
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) criticized the bill: “United Senate Democrats, all 53 of us, have informed the Speaker that his legislation was doomed in the Senate because we would not vote for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. It would put our great Nation on a path to another default extravaganza as we have experienced in the last few weeks. Frankly, that new extravaganza would start in a matter of weeks again. Virtually every expert--economist, rating agency, market analyst--has said the kind of short-term plan the Speaker has proposed is no answer to the crisis. Republicans created the crisis, and what they want to do is no answer to it. If we are really trying to avert the kind of financial calamity default would bring, the Republicans' plan is not a solution.”
The Senate voted to table (kill) this debt limit bill by a vote of 59-41. All 53 Democrats and 6 Republicans voted “yea” (in favor or killing the bill). 41 Republicans voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate effectively killed legislation that would have cut $917 billion from federal government programs, raised the U.S. debt limit by $900 billion, and required Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment to the constitution prior to any subsequent increases in the debt limit. Congress eventually did pass, however, different legislation that raised the U.S. debt limit by $2.4 trillion (to $16.7 trillion) through 2012, cut more than $900 billion from social programs and military spending, and created a commission to propose an additional $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings (either from spending cuts or tax revenue increases). President Obama then signed that measure into law.