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Editorial: What does that ‘no’ vote really mean?

There is a cynical phenomenon in Congress that the New York Times yesterday described as the “Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus.”

This is when politicians really want a bill to pass but really don’t want their fingerprints on it. The legislation in question is likely good for the country but bad for the pols’ reelection chances. And if it has enough support to pass without these brave lawmakers’ support, they’ll vote no, all the while hoping that “yes” will prevail. After watching the shenanigans in the U.S. Senate this week, it’s clear the “Vote No, Hope Yes” crowd was out in full force.

Sad to say, it appears New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte was among the members.

At issue was the measure to raise the nation’s debt limit – an oldie but a goodie. The legislation allows the government to keep borrowing and, as a result, to keep paying its bills. It’s not about running up additional debt – it’s about not defaulting on spending that the government has already committed to. In the past, at least, such a measure was considered routine: Before this week, Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling 19 times since 1993.

The measure passed – but with scant GOP support. Among those voting “No” on the key procedural vote in the Senate was Ayotte – the same senator who staked out a position as the voice of reason a few months back when bomb-throwers in her party precipitated a government shutdown. After all, as she argued at the time, an economic or governmental crisis was in no one’s interest – least of all her party’s.

On this week’s debt ceiling vote, Ayotte initially kept her own counsel. She was described on Tuesday by Politico as undecided. But after ultimately voting no, Ayotte explained via Twitter: “Today’s legislation did absolutely nothing to get our fiscal house in order and address our $17 trillion debt – and that’s why I voted against it.”

And, she said, “Since I ran for office I’ve said that when we raise debt limit, we owe it to Americans – especially our children – to address underlying drivers of debt.”

At least one New Hampshire Republican, Dan Innis, a candidate for the 1st District seat in Congress, had a different view – even amid his quest to win the support of GOP voters: “A debt default would trigger a financial crisis that would do immediate harm to our economy and negatively impact the lives of all Americans,” he said after the House vote. “Failing to raise the debt ceiling does nothing to address the two underlying big problems that Washington currently faces – a failure to cut spending responsibly and a failure of presidential leadership.

In this round, it’s Innis’s view that makes more sense. And Ayotte no doubt knows it.

In the end, Congress approved the increase in the debt ceiling, President Obama will sign it, and life will go on. A bigger question remains, however. If lawmakers continue to see an advantage in voting “no” for measures they know should get a “yes” – even a measure as basic as keeping the economy from falling apart – how will Congress move forward on anything else?

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