By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, a vote to end debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling on Wednesday was much more than a vote to leave Washington before a snowstorm arrived.
It earned him the wrath of his party's vocal and influential right wing, and it could have implications for the Senate minority leader's re-election campaign in Kentucky.
The vote, in which he was joined by 11 other Republican senators, came as McConnell is trying to appeal to conservative voters in Kentucky to fend off a primary challenge from Matt Bevin, a Tea Party-aligned Republican. And it was a sign of defiance against influential outside groups trying to push him further to the political right less than half a year after a government shutdown and the last debt ceiling fight.
"This vote couldn't have come at a worse time for Mitch McConnell," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, who advised Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. O'Connell noted that the campaign ahead of the May 20 Kentucky Senate primary was moving into high gear.
The legislation to extend the U.S. federal borrowing authority for a year now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama for approval. Debt limit increases have been a source of major partisan battles since 2011, and Wednesday's vote was seen as a victory for Democrats.
But McConnell, a 29-year veteran of the Senate who has been closely involved with negotiating agreements to end similar standoffs in the past, stepped forward to ensure the measure's passage.
Allies to Tea Party challenger Bevin staunchly oppose raising the debt ceiling, saying Republicans should demand deficit reduction as a condition for any increase in the Obama administration's borrowing authority.
"I wish I could say I am surprised that Mitch McConnell voted to hand President Obama another blank check," said Bevin in a statement after the vote.
"But sadly, I am not, because this is more of the same from a career politician who has voted for bigger government, multiple bailouts, and now 11 debt ceiling increases."
McConnell leads Bevin in early polling, but if he wins, he could face a tougher race against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state. McConnell is trailing Grimes slightly in preliminary polls.
To win the primary, McConnell must continue to court voters on the right without alienating the moderate Republican and independent voters he will need to win the general election.
MOBILIZING AGAINST MCCONNELL
Still, independent political groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund are mobilizing supporters to ensure he does not even get past the primary.
"They want Mitch McConnell out of there, but his standing looks pretty good. His biggest worry is Grimes, and this vote doesn't hurt him against her," O'Connell said.
Seconds after McConnell voted to end debate on the debt limit vote, the Senate Conservatives Fund tweeted: "Mitch McConnell just voted with the Democrats to advance yet another debt limit increase. Kentucky deserves better."
While Republican leaders are confident they can retake the Senate by winning six seats from vulnerable Democrats in November, right-wing insurgents aligned with the Tea Party, such as Bevin, are complicating their efforts by challenging Senate veterans.
As the drama played out over the procedural vote on the debt limit, McConnell's Senate Republican colleagues lent him some crucial support. The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, who is also facing a primary challenge from the right, also voted in favor of allowing the debt limit measure to advance.
Other Republican senators who voted with McConnell included Senator McCain of Arizona and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, both of whom are known as dealmakers in the Senate.
But the move highlighted tensions between McConnell and his prominent conservative colleagues.
Kentucky's other senator, Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, voted "no" on the procedural legislation on the debt limit.
McConnell owed his predicament on Wednesday to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a main player in the government shutdown in October and, like Paul, a possible 2016 presidential contender.
Cruz had threatened to block the procedural vote on the debt ceiling increase unless it received at least 60 votes, which meant at least a handful of Republican votes were necessary to ensure its passage.
In the end, the measure passed 67-31. The senators then approved increasing the debt ceiling by a 55-43 vote, and rushed to catch flights out of Washington before a major winter storm was due to hit the city.
"We can't keep going the path that we're on," Cruz said after the vote. "We're bankrupting the country. It's irresponsible to our kids, it's irresponsible to our grandkids."
(Additional reporting by David Lawder, Richard Cowan, Thomas Ferraro and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Caren Bohan and Mohammad Zargham)