Outcome is referendum on Boehner

Thursday’s vote on the House Republican debt-limit bill has quickly become a referendum on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

It is, without question, the biggest vote of Boehner’s reign. Some are even speculating that Boehner’s Speakership is on the line.

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If Boehner can convince his colleagues to back his bill, he will gain significant leverage in the debt-limit talks. If it’s voted down, there will be questions about whether he can remain an effective leader of the House GOP Conference.

A seasoned House Republican lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Hill that the vote on Boehner’s proposal is a “vote of confidence in the Speaker.” 

“This is the first time that we’re almost in a parliamentary position in that the president is sort of out of it, and this is now a situation where it’s a vote of confidence in the Speaker and so, if we don’t get it through, John is out of the picture,” the source said. 

“As a Republican, this is a vote of confidence in John Boehner,” the Republican legislator stated, as members of the GOP leadership frantically sought to minimize defections Wednesday.

Since introducing his bill on Monday, Boehner has spent a lot of time lobbying his members on the House floor during votes.

According to a source close to Boehner, the Speaker is asking lawmakers what they would require in order to vote for the bill.

One member close to the Speaker, who is currently “concerned” with the proposal, said that Boehner asked, “What do need? I need you with me on this.”

The lawmaker explained that Boehner meant, “what information do you need, what’s going to make you comfortable [voting yes]?”

During a long House GOP conference meeting on Wednesday morning, Boehner — clad in a pink tie with blue sharks — urged his colleagues to stand together in support of the measure, even though he conceded it’s “not perfect.” 

Supporters of Boehner’s proposal likened the situation to being a member of a sports team: When the coach calls the play, the players sometimes want to call an audible.

But ultimately, the coach is responsible for leading the team to victory or defeat. 

Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner (R) said that the conference elected Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to lead the team and the moment has come for members of the conference to stand together and back them. 

“[Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)] was the coach when he was Speaker. We called him the coach because he was a wrestling coach. John is a businessman at heart,” Bonner said, noting that he spoke at the conference meeting in favor of Boehner’s bill.

Bonner said House Republicans are free to question the choices their leadership makes, but “it means that at the end of the day — once the coach has made the decision to call the play, if you want to be a successful team, you’ve got to be with the team.” 

The team theme has long been used by the party in control of the House.

Yet Boehner’s style of getting votes is much different from the one employed by Hastert and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay ran the GOP conference using intimidation. If you were with the team, you were rewarded. If not, DeLay would dole out punishment, some of it done publicly.

Boehner and his lieutenants have distanced themselves from that approach. However, DeLay’s fear tactics worked. And it remains to be seen if the leaders of the new House majority can deliver on such a tight and high-profile vote.

Running the House Republicans, including a class of 87 GOP freshmen, necessitates a deft hand, Republican aides say, claiming that threats would not work on this rambunctious crew.

Still, House Republican leaders have clearly been frustrated with their rank and file. Earlier this week, Cantor admonished members to stop “whining” about Boehner’s new debt strategy. That came just one day after Boehner implored his members to unify against President Obama and Senate Democrats.

Some conservative members are adamantly opposed to Boehner’s legislation, claiming it is a weak imitation of the “cut, cap and balance” bill the House passed last week. 

Assuming all Democrats vote no on Thursday, Boehner can afford only two dozen “no” votes from GOP members. Any more than that number would doom the bill.

Prominent Republicans, including Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Ron Paul (Texas), Steve King (Iowa), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Jason Chaffetz (Utah), have vowed to reject Boehner’s bill. 

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) is rallying support for the measure: “It’s also the only alternative out there for us, I mean it’s Boehner, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] or Obama. Once Boehner is knocked out of the picture, that increases Obama’s leverage, and we get a much weaker bill than we would otherwise.” 

Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) both spoke up at Wednesday’s conference meeting on the importance of following their Speaker.

The message conveyed, according to a source, was: “We are stronger if we are one.” 

Bonner believes that if the House manages to approve Boehner’s bill, the Senate would have no choice but to pass it. 

“I still think, at the end of the day, if we get the votes to pass this bill tomorrow, I think Sen. Reid may not like it, he may talk ugly about it … but then the ball goes to his court. We can’t control what happens in the Senate, but … then the responsibility for default falls squarely on his shoulders and President Obama’s shoulders,” Bonner said. 

Regardless of whether the House passes the Boehner bill, Reid said the measure is “dead on arrival” in the Senate. Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

Yet, in the political leverage game, the success or failure of Boehner’s legislation will be a major development in the debt-limit debate. It will also mark a triumph, or devastating defeat, of Boehner’s Speakership.

A member close to Boehner, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), is torn over how to vote. Latham, who faces a tough reelection fight next year against Democratic incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), is in a tough spot, sources familiar with the situation told The Hill.

Latham signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge, vowing he wouldn’t vote for a measure without significant budget reforms and spending cuts. Voting yes could attract criticism from conservatives.

Latham declined to comment for this article.