WASHINGTON — — Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin rarely embraces drama, but as the denouement of the debt ceiling debate played out Tuesday, the Maryland Democrat became something of a mystery — undecided up until the very last minute on how he would vote.
Cardin, a first-term senator up for re-election next year, said he made up his mind to support the compromise legislation to raise the debt limit as he walked from his office to the Senate floor to cast his vote.
He joined 46 Democrats and 28 Republicans in backing the measure, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
"I was conflicted," said Cardin, who emerged from a Capitol Hill meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and other Senate Democrats on Monday with a marked-up copy of the legislation — and, he said, many outstanding questions.
"The main reason I voted for it: We cannot allow the debt ceiling to be breached, and there were no other alternatives."
The vote, taken just hours before the midnight deadline to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, ended a months-long impasse by endorsing the deal that emerged from negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans just 48 hours before.
The proposal extends the government's borrowing power through next year but does not address fundamental questions over government finances, such as how to continue paying for ever-more-costly entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
It also sets up another potential showdown over taxes and spending this fall.
Even before senators finished voting Tuesday, attention in Washington shifted to the likely makeup and work of the 12-member bipartisan congressional panel that the new law charges with identifying between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion in cuts by Nov. 23.
If the panel fails to act — or Congress does not accept its recommendations — than the law imposes automatic, across-the-board spending cuts worth $1.2 trillion.
Despite speculation about who will be named to the panel — including whether Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County lawmaker who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is a candidate — congressional leaders made no appointments Tuesday.
After their votes, many lawmakers returned to their districts or home states for the monthlong summer recess.
With groups such as MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee accusing the White House of selling out liberal supporters in its negotiations with Republicans, the vote in the Senate was particularly grueling for Democrats such as Cardin, who will rely on core Democratic supporters to drive turnout in next year's election.
A day earlier, dozens of liberal Democrats in the House who were angry that the legislation did not include new taxes to offset deep spending cuts joined conservative Republicans in voting against the measure. Three Maryland Democrats — Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, John Sarbanes and Donna F. Edwards — joined Republican Rep. Andy Harris in opposing the agreement Monday.
"The sad fact is that when the American public most needed Washington to stand up and fight for them, Washington failed," Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement.
Twenty-three Senate seats held by Democrats are up for election next year. Cardin's, in heavily Democratic Maryland, is considered among the safest.
Democrats, including Obama, have long sought a "balanced approach" to address deficit reduction, by which they mean a combination of budget cuts and new tax revenues. But the demand for taxes fell by the wayside after GOP leaders rejected it and lawmakers in both parties scrambled to find a last-minute deal to avert a possible default.
The debt agreement will initially slash about $900 billion in spending over 10 years. The bipartisan panel then will take up the task of recommending further deficit reduction.
Noting the partisan bickering over the past several months, lawmakers in both parties said they are concerned about the new panel's prospects.
"Finding consensus in this environment is going to be very, very difficult," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, who voted against the debt agreement. "It seems to be that we're a nation that puts out fires … some of these fires are going to be so big you can't put them out."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski supported the measure, but is worried about both the initial cuts and those that would kick in if Congress fails to find additional savings by the year's end.
But she said the risk of the government not having enough money to pay its bills was a far greater concern.
"It was wrenching because of the continual draconian cuts," the Maryland Democrat said of her vote.
She said the new debt panel's chance of success will depend largely on who is appointed to serve.
Cardin said he supported the measure in part because it includes language that protects Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries from direct cuts.
He noted that the automatic cuts, if triggered by inaction, would also fall on defense spending, traditionally a priority for Republicans.
And that, Cardin said, would put Democrats and Republicans on more equal footing than they have been all year.
"I know the base is angry," Cardin said. "I've been through enough tough votes to know that a few weeks from now, a few months from now, maybe, it'll be a little bit different."