By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 07/27/11 12:26 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is heading into a critical House vote on his deficit-reduction plan, at risk of losing significant leverage in the GOP’s drag-out fight with the White House over raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit.
House Republican leaders were scrambling Tuesday to lock down 217 votes for the Boehner bill amid a conservative revolt and staunch Democratic opposition, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told the party’s restive rank-and-file to “stop grumbling and whining” and rally around their leader.
The CBO projected the Boehner bill would reduce the deficit by $850 billion over 10 years, not the $1.2 trillion the Speaker had announced. Because the legislation would increase the debt limit by $900 billion initially, the estimate threatened Boehner’s long-held promise to demand spending cuts in excess of new federal borrowing authority.
“We promised that we will cut spending more than we increase the debt limit — with no tax hikes — and we will keep that promise,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. The GOP leadership scheduled a briefing for lawmakers Tuesday night, the third conference-wide meeting in two days.
Ostensibly the delay of the vote until Thursday is to rework the legislation, but it also gives Boehner the opportunity to build more support for the plan among his caucus. A conference meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), an opponent of the proposal, said Boehner did not have the votes to pass the measure and members of the GOP leadership were in no position to dispute him.
The Speaker himself voiced cautious optimism that his bill would pass, but he stopped well short of an ironclad guarantee.
“I do think we’re going to have some work to do to get it passed, but I think we can do it,” Boehner told reporters after a closed-door GOP conference meeting.
Boehner can lose only 23 Republicans before he must turn to Democrats for help in passing the legislation. Five Democrats crossed the aisle to back the “cut, cap and balance” plan, but none have publicly announced their support for the new Boehner proposal, and one, Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), said he would oppose it. Democrats are whipping hard against the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the bill is “dead on arrival” in the upper chamber, and the Obama administration announced that the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto if it reached his desk.
In the GOP conference meeting, Cantor praised Boehner’s leadership and acknowledged that “the debt limit vote sucks,” according to a Republican official familiar with his remarks. But he told lawmakers that they had only three choices: allow the country to default on Aug. 2, pass a Senate bill that Boehner has denounced as “full of gimmicks” and a “blank check” for President Obama, or support the GOP leadership and “call the president’s bluff.”
Cantor “said to stop grumbling and whining and to come together as conservatives and rally behind the Speaker and call the president’s bluff,” the Republican with knowledge of his remarks said.
But Boehner and Cantor face stiff opposition from some conservatives, particularly those who had signed a pledge to support only the GOP-passed “cut, cap and balance” plan to conditionally raise the debt ceiling. By mid-afternoon, at least 16 House Republicans said they were definitely voting no on his plan, or leaning that way.
The Speaker’s proposal would authorize additional debt for about six months while cutting $1.2 trillion over 10 years, including caps on discretionary spending. It would mandate a congressional vote on — but not passage of — a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. And it would condition a second increase to the debt ceiling on the enactment of a $1.8 trillion deficit-reduction package, to be proposed by a new “Joint Committee of Congress.”
“I am confident that, as of this morning, that there are not 218 Republicans in support of the plan,” Jordan said. (Because of two House vacancies, Boehner would technically need 217 votes instead of 218.)
But Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a close friend of the Speaker’s, insisted that Boehner does have the votes and that the bill could pass Wednesday without Democrat support.
He said there will be no changes to the legislation to appease holdouts but added that leadership would hold a Thursday vote on a balanced-budget amendment to win support.
Conservatives said their chief complaints with the proposal were the level of immediate spending cuts and that it did not require Congress to send a balanced-budget amendment to the states, only that both the House and Senate hold a vote before the end of the year.
“I took a pledge,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said. “That means passage of a balanced-budget amendment.” He called himself “a definite no” and said Boehner “can’t get my vote” without changing his legislation.
Other Republicans criticized the creation of yet another committee to reduce the deficit, following a presidential commission and the group of congressional leaders helmed by Vice President Biden.
Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) said he was undecided on the Boehner plan but pushed back against Cantor’s comments to the conference. “I have got a tremendous amount of respect for Leader Cantor, but I’m not whining. I am just stating the facts,” Landry said.
Republican leaders were describing the Boehner bill to lawmakers as “the last Republican train leaving the station,” one aide said. Boehner was working members on the House floor Tuesday, and leaders argued the legislation contained 70 percent of what the GOP envisioned in its budget, which passed overwhelmingly in April.
If the House failed to pass Boehner’s bill, the clear implication was that Republicans would be forced to consider a competing proposal from Reid, which Boehner denounced as “a blank check” for Obama and “full of gimmicks.”
“I think they know we’ll be forced to consider it” if the Boehner plan went down, freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) said.
Republican interest groups were split on the Boehner plan. The Heritage Action group and the Club for Growth rallied against it, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist pushed for its passage.
House Democrats eagerly anticipated its demise, hoping the result would tilt momentum toward Reid’s $2.7 trillion deficit-reduction plan, which would increase the debt ceiling through 2012 without slashing entitlement programs.
“That would be certainly more attractive to Democrats,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said of the Reid plan. Democrats have long pressed for new revenues in a deficit-reduction package, which Reid’s proposal excludes, and Larson acknowledged House Democrats were not enthusiastic. “You don’t see us doing somersaults out there,” he said.
Molly K. Hooper contributed.