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Senate vote gives Obama option to raise debt ceiling another $1.2 trillion

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Jan. 24, 2012: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks to reporters on Capitol Hill.AP

Senate Republicans were unable to muster enough votes Thursday for a bill opposing another $1.2 trillion increase in the debt ceiling. 

The measure was defeated on a 52-44 vote. Lawmakers would have needed 60 votes in order to push the bill through, and more than that to override a presidential veto. The House had approved the measure last week, but it was expected to fail in the Senate. 

The vote caps an unusual process set up at the end of the debt-ceiling debate last summer. The process allows lawmakers, mostly Republicans, to vote against debt increases but not actually block them. Blocking them would provoke a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations.

The vote split mostly along party lines. One Republican, Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, opposed the measure. Two Democrats -- West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson -- supported it.  

"Look, we should be working together to lower the debt, not having votes to increase it," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. "No more blank checks."

Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey said the government must "live within their means."

"Our government is heading toward a fiscal crisis, and now is not the time for the government to take out yet another credit card," he said in a statement. 

The national debt has skyrocketed during Obama's first term -- from $10.6 trillion to $15.2 trillion today. Last year's debt agreement permits a total debt limit increase of $2.1 trillion in exchange for an equivalent amount in spending cuts, which would be spread out over the coming decade. The first $900 billion comes from caps on the day-to-day operations of federal agencies. 

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana said default was unthinkable and that additional borrowing is needed to pay for obligations already incurred by lawmakers. 

"If today's vote succeeds and causes a default, the federal government would not have funds to pay troop salaries, Social Security benefits or Medicare bills," Baucus said. "These programs would be in danger, and that would hurt the families and seniors that rely on them." 

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has voted for many debt increases during GOP administrations, said it is time "get rid of the $1-trillion-plus deficits of the Obama presidency, to get rid of our mountain of debt that surpasses the size of our entire economy, and to bring the size of our federal government back down to historical norms." 

The House passed a similar resolution in September after Obama used his authority to raise the debt cap by $500 billion, but it, too, died in the Senate. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.