WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval Wednesday to legislation allowing more federal borrowing to pay the nation's bills, but not without a dramatic scene in the Senate as Republican leaders scrambled to find enough votes to head off a filibuster attempt led by one of their colleagues.
The House had swiftly approved the bill this week, and smooth passage was expected in the Senate, ending three years of partisan brinkmanship over the debt limit.
But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and a group of tea party allies brushed aside fellow Republicans' efforts to let the bill pass quietly. He insisted there was still time to devise a budget-cutting plan that Congress could adopt before Feb. 27, the date on which Treasury Department officials have said the government would be at risk of not having the money to pay its bills.
Because the Democrats have 55 votes — counting two independents who caucus with them — and ending a filibuster requires 60, Cruz's strategy forced the GOP leadership into the uncomfortable position of finding at least five Republicans willing to vote to allow the debt ceiling bill to proceed.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the vote on cutting off debate. Normally, such roll calls last about 15 minutes. But with the measure falling short, Reid allowed the vote to stretch to nearly an hour as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, struggled to secure support.
From the galleries, Republican senators could be seen resisting overtures from colleagues to provide the needed votes. Few wanted to be the 60th senator on an issue that remains deeply unpopular, particularly with the conservatives who dominate Republican primaries.
Eventually, McConnell, along with his top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — both of whom face primary challenges — voted "aye." Then Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a line of several other GOP senators — party leaders and their allies — onto the floor, where many of them changed their votes.
Ultimately, 12 Republicans joined with Democrats in the 67-31 vote. Final passage of the debt ceiling measure came quickly afterward on a party-line tally of 55 to 43.
"I'm pleased we were able to wrap up the business of the Senate and move on," McConnell said as he walked back to his office.
McConnell's tea party challenger in the Kentucky primary, Matt Bevin, denounced the vote in a statement, using McConnell's previous remarks, in which he called passage of a debt limit bill without policy concessions by Democrats "unreasonable" and "irresponsible."
McConnell's allies, however, said he had provided leadership at a crucial moment.
"It shows tremendous courage on his part," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Cruz stood by his strategy, saying the vote provided "candor and clarity with the American people."
"Every Senate Republican should have stood together" against raising the debt ceiling, he said.
Separately, senators agreed, 95 to 3, to reverse cuts to some veterans' pensions. Members of both parties had agreed to the cuts as part of last year's budget accord, but they quickly regretted the vote after a sharp backlash from veterans groups.
The budget measure had been designed to reduce the rising costs of pensions for service members, who often can retire in their 40s. It would have held cost-of-living adjustments to 1% below the inflation rate for veterans younger than 62 who do not have service-related injuries. That proved politically unsustainable. Now, the cuts will fall only on service members who retire after 2014.
The House had passed the measure this week, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law.