By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON -- The tea party is teeing off on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in the GOP primary in Kentucky, seized on the senator's vote Wednesday to move ahead on legislation to increase the nation's debt limit, describing it as a blank check for President Barack Obama. The tea party-backed businessman and conservative groups signaled they won't let Senate Republican incumbents forget the vote this election year.
"Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behavior from the likes of Mitch McConnell," Bevin said in a statement.
Setting the vote in motion was one of McConnell's Republican colleagues -- Texan Ted Cruz, the tea party darling who has caused heartburn for his GOP colleagues in his year in the Senate.
Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold for the Senate to proceed to must-pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money to pay its bills. House and Senate Republicans had decided against another round of brinkmanship and let it be known they were ready to let Democrats deliver the votes on the debt bill after the House passed it Tuesday.
Not Cruz, who along with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, precipitated the 16-day government shutdown in October over their demands Obama gut his health care law.
Instead of going along with a simple majority vote, Cruz showed no mercy in forcing Republican leaders to cast a tough vote to clear a filibuster hurdle, exposing them to widespread criticism from primary challengers and outside groups.
After what seemed like an eternity, a grim-faced McConnell finally voted yes. An equally grim-faced Sen. John Cornyn, the party's No. 2 leader and Cruz's Texas colleague, changed his vote from no to yes. Sen. John McCain rallied other Republicans to vote yes, providing a show of political support for the leaders. The 67-31 tally advanced the bill to a final vote.
In that vote, no Republican supported lifting the Treasury's borrowing authority. The bill passed on a party-line 55-43 vote, moving on to Obama.
The more pragmatic element of the Republican Party is determined to keep the focus this election year on Obama's troubled health care law and steer clear of divisive budget fights. But the party's ideological purists consider that capitulation in the face of debt and deficits.
The vote Wednesday was a fresh reminder that while Republicans see a legitimate chance of grabbing the majority in the Senate, fissures within the GOP often trip them up.
Pressed after the votes about what he made his leaders do, Cruz was unapologetic.
"It should have been a very easy vote," he said. "In my view, every Senate Republican should have stood together."
Whether McConnell remains the leader, Cruz said it "is ultimately a decision ... for the voters in Kentucky."
He faulted Congress with giving Obama more time "to keep digging the hole of debt, deeper, while doing absolutely nothing, nada, zero, to address the underlying problem of out-of-control spending."
Conservative groups railed against McConnell. "Americans deserve better than fake leaders who make empty promises and deliver zero results. It's time to dump the leadership," said Brent Bozell, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica.
The Madison Project, which is backing McConnell challenger Bevin, said the Kentucky Republican had given Obama a blank check.
The overall legislation would permit the Treasury to borrow normally for 13 more months and then reset the government's borrowing limit, currently set at $17.2 trillion, after that.
It passed the House Tuesday after Republicans gave up efforts to use the debt ceiling measure to win concessions from Obama on GOP agenda items like approval of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans had even considered reversing the pension cut for working-age military retirees as part of the overall bill. They decided to handle that separately.
The debt measure is required so that the government can borrow to pay Social Security benefits, federal salaries and bills from Medicare and Medicaid providers.
Quick action on the legislation stands in contrast to lengthy showdowns in 2012 and last fall when Republicans sought to use the critically necessary measure as leverage to win concessions from Obama. They succeeded in 2011, winning about $2 trillion in spending cuts, but Obama has been unwilling to negotiate over the debt limit since his re-election. The bill approved Wednesday is the third consecutive debt measure passed without White House concessions.
Some Republicans seemed irked that Cruz wouldn't let the bill pass without forcing it to clear a 60-vote threshold that required some Republicans to walk the plank and help it advance.
"I'm not going to talk about that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked if Republicans are annoyed with Cruz.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said Cruz was "entitled to his position," and added: "To be a leader you have to do very hard things. He's new here."
Republicans weren't the only ones willing to reverse course just days after insisting otherwise. Senate Democrats abandoned their insistence that the cost of restoring the full military pension be allowed to add to the government's deficit. Instead, they joined Republicans in backing the House-passed measure that offsets the price tag by extending previously approved cuts elsewhere in the budget for another year, until 2024.
The Senate voted 95-3 for the measure, one day after the House approved it, 326-90. The White House said Obama would sign it.