Washington (CNN) – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, on Friday defended his decision back home in Kentucky to join Democrats in a vote to clear a filibuster hurdle that allowed a vote to raise the debt ceiling.
"My job is to protect the country when I can and to step up and lead on those occasions when it's required. That's what I did," he said at a campaign appearance in Louisville.
McConnell was one of 12 Republican senators to join Democrats on Tuesday in voting to end debate on the debt-ceiling bill that will extend the federal debt limit for a year, a move his opponents have been quick to criticize him for.
President Obama signed the bill into law Saturday in California, the White House said in a statement.
Follow @politicaltickerFollow @sarafischer
Matt Bevin, a tea party conservative who is challenging McConnell in the Kentucky GOP primary in May, said in a statement after the vote Tuesday, "Kentucky and America can literally no longer afford such financially reckless behavior from the likes of Mitch McConnell."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who threatened to filibuster the vote, criticized Senate Republicans for joining with Democrats to vote for the bill saying, "Every Senate Republican should have stood together."
Commenting on McConnell's vote, Cruz said that it "is ultimately a decision for the voters in Kentucky."
Both Bevin and Cruz also said that McConnell and other Senate Republicans helped give Obama a "blank check."
Appearing on Mark Levin's radio program Thursday night, Cruz said, "If 41 Republicans had stood together and just voted no, the clean debt ceiling, the blank check for President Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, would have been denied."
On Friday Bevin tweeted, "@Team_Mitch gave Obama blank check to 'take one for the team' Which team is he talkin about?"
When asked about his opponents’ comments, McConnell defended his position at the event Friday saying, "My preference is for a debt ceiling to carry additional legislation that does something about the debt."
"I've obviously demonstrated that," McConnell said. "I negotiated the Budget Control Act with Vice President Biden in August of 2011. It led to a deficit-reduction package that actually reduced government spending for two years in a row for the first time since right after the Korean War."
McConnell said the House's inability to come together on a different version of the bill gave him no choice but to vote in favor of passing a clean debt-ceiling bill.
"My first choice would be to pass a debt ceiling that had something related to doing something about the debt on it, but as you know, the House of Representatives couldn't pass anything else other than a clean debt ceiling. They couldn't pass anything else."
"The Speaker tried a whole lot of different versions, add-ons to the debt ceiling. He couldn't get to 218 no matter what combination. So we were confronted with a clean debt ceiling in the Senate or default."
House Speaker John Boehner, after unsuccessfully trying to gather enough Republicans to vote on a new version of the bill joked on February 6th, "You know, Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, you probably couldn't get 218 Republican votes."
McConnell also defended his record as a legislator who averts crises, saying: "I believe I have to act in the best interest of the country, and every time we've been confronted with a potential crisis, the guy you're looking at is the one who stepped up and solved the problem,” he said. “Whether it was the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012, when everyone's taxes were going up. Whether it was last October in the 16th day of the government shutdown or yesterday, or Thursday, when it was clear that we needed to produce enough procedural votes to get to a debt ceiling vote in order to avoid a default."