The recent vote on raising the ceiling on the national debt spotlighted the reason why Congress fails to act on virtually anything and manages to achieve record low popularity.

The debt limit is really a sham. The debts have already been incurred, and the U.S. must pay their cost. Presumably, blocking an increase means cutting spending so there’s money available to pay interest on the debt.

The Republicans in both the House and Senate wanted to avoid the issue becoming the cause of another government shutdown, for which they could once again get the blame. Tea party partisans, however, were willing to have the GOP take the heat for a shutdown, so long as they could take a victory blocking the debt ceiling increase into this year’s elections.

That put non-tea party Republicans on the spot. If they voted to increase the debt limit, they might find themselves facing tea party opponents in GOP primaries this year.

In the House, GOP Speaker John Boehner made a move possibly marking him in political history as a person who put the good of the country ahead of political survival. Or it could simply show he is a smart politician, who knew the way the wind was blowing among the voters.

Boehner decided to let the House vote on suspending the debt limit. He knew only a few Republicans would be willing to ignore the tea party and vote for the suspension, joining with almost all Democrats. The speaker’s move was unusual for the GOP, and more courageous than most of what followed.

The only face saver was that the debt ceiling was not increased, but only “suspended.” That ploy gave the impression, almost certainly false, that, in 2015, House members could revert to the old debt ceiling. Or could the issue melt away, by substituting more suspensions for actual increases?

The speaker’s move worked. Most Republicans could proudly state they had voted against the suspension, thus warding off challenges from the tea party. They passed the buck to Senate Republicans.

The rest should have been easy for the GOP. By avoiding a formal vote to cut off debate, the Senate could have simply voted on the House bill. Given the Democrats’ Senate majority, all of the Republicans could have voted against the bill and still seen it pass, which is what most of them really wanted.

But the tea party was not about to let that happen. To pick up seats from traditional GOP senators, they had to make the debt ceiling an issue. So they demanded a procedural vote requiring 60 votes to bring the House bill before the Senate. The Democrats alone can muster 55 votes.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, darling of the tea party, was more than happy to force the procedural vote. Rarely does one see the open hostility of other Republican senators to one of their own as arose after his action. Cruz even crossed his party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

His tactics meant some Republicans would have to join all the Democrats in voting to end debate and proceed to a vote, putting some of them in the tea party line of fire in the primaries, including McConnell himself.

A dozen GOP senators joined the Democrats in ending debate. Then the Republicans unanimously voted against the House bill, allowing it to pass with the votes of the majority Democrats. Remember, most Republican senators wanted the bill to pass. They just didn’t want to be responsible for it.

Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins dutifully voted to end debate. But sharing the worries of her party about a rightwing takeover by the tea party, she voted against the sensible House bill. Of course, that vote cost her and her fellow Republicans nothing, because they knew the Democrats would pass it.

The Republican Party seems to be held hostage by its fear it will be taken over by archconservatives like Cruz. It does not often resist them, much less get tough with their destructive tactics.

Why is the GOP, a party with a proud conservative history, allowing the tea party, representing about 20 percent of voters, to take it over in Congress?

Many Republicans seem unwilling to fight for constructive conservatism focused more on economic issues than political grandstanding. Instead, they cede control to people like Cruz who exploit division rather than promoting positive solutions.

If senators like Collins try to survive the tea party threat by letting it set the agenda, traditional Republicans could turn out to be little more than foot soldiers in a right-wing army.

— Gordon L. Weil is an author, publisher, consultant, and former official of international organizations and the U.S. and Maine governments.