WASHINGTON

Republicans reluctantly say ‘aye’ to debt ceiling rise

Legislation to raise the federal debt limit and prevent a crippling government default cleared Congress on Wednesday with an awkward assist from top Senate Republican leaders who were forced into a politically treacherous vote engineered by tea party favorite Ted Cruz.

The Texas Republican’s maneuver forced several GOP colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, into a reluctant vote against a filibuster, helping the measure along. It’s a vote likely to cause grief for McConnell, who is facing a primary election challenge.

On a day of legislative drama, the key vote clearing the way for final action was held open for more than an hour – as the stock market looked on nervously – and broke open only after McConnell and top lieutenant John Cornyn, R-Texas, unexpectedly voted “aye.” Several other Republicans then switched their votes to support the measure, ultimately breaking the filibuster by a 67-31 margin.

The bill then passed the Senate by a near party-line 55-43 vote, with all of the yes votes coming from President Obama’s Democratic allies.

The president is now clear to sign the bill, which allows the government to borrow all the money it needs to pay bills such as Social Security benefits, federal salaries, and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers.

Failure to pass it would have likely sent the stock market – which dipped modestly as the voting dragged on – into a tailspin.

McConnell faces a primary election challenge from tea party candidate Matt Bevin and has been under sharp criticism from outside groups who say he isn’t conservative enough.

Rise in gasoline tax seen as needed to fund highways

Raising the U.S. gasoline tax above 18.4 cents a gallon is the “simplest and most straightforward” way to fund a long-term highway bill, the president of the nation’s largest lobbying group for businesses told Congress.

Lawmakers need to embrace a higher gas tax despite the backlash over a similar proposal two years ago that prevented approval of a six-year highway funding bill, Thomas Donohue, the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday.

– From news service reports