By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 07/28/11 12:48 AM EDT
Intense pressure from House Republican leaders on their members appeared to build momentum Wednesday for Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) debt-limit bill, despite conservative doubts and a wall of opposition from Democrats.
“Get your ass in line,” the Speaker told Republican lawmakers in a conference meeting Wednesday, as his proposal to grant President Obama a limited increase in the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling faces a nail-biter of a vote on Thursday.
The Speaker’s closest allies also worked to quash a conservative rebellion that forced a vote on the bill to be delayed. The effort included a private lashing of staffers in the Republican Study Committee after emails were sent to conservative outside groups asking them to lobby lawmakers against Boehner’s bill.
A boastful Boehner confirmed his salty rallying cry in an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, during which he made the case for his bill in starkly partisan terms. “Barack Obama hates it, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] hates it, [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] hates it,” he said. Questioning conservative opposition, he said this was the GOP’s best — and probably last — chance to “hold the president’s feet to the fire.”
Aides said it was the same argument Boehner made privately to his conference. In the meeting, the fourth such gathering of the week, the Speaker talked about how he went “toe to toe” with Obama in primetime speeches on Tuesday and expected to see an “army” behind him.
The exhortation from Boehner came a day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Republicans to “stop grumbling and whining” and rally around the bill. Cantor made his case again Wednesday, telling lawmakers he was “disappointed” to turn on the television Tuesday night and see Republicans standing against Republicans, an aide said.
The pleas from party leaders appeared to have an effect. Republicans emerged from the meeting on Wednesday saying momentum was turning in Boehner’s favor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office reported success in converting skeptics into supporters.
“It’s growing every day,” McCarthy told The Hill about support for the bill.
The push to resolve the crisis took on added urgency as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 200 points on worries about the stalemate in Washington.
Boehner needs 217 votes to pass the legislation, and he can lose no more than 23 Republicans if all Democrats vote against it. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), an ally of the Democratic leadership, predicted Wednesday that the Boehner plan would get not a single Democratic vote.
As of Wednesday afternoon, at least 21 Republicans had said publicly they would oppose or were leaning toward opposing the Boehner bill, according to a whip count by The Hill.
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), an outspoken conservative who is supporting Boehner’s proposal, confidently predicted the legislation would pass. “I’d almost put my retirement check on it,” he said.
Some members attributed the shift in support to a softer tone the leadership adopted, which was apparent in the later Wednesday meeting Boehner held with first-term members. “Can you help me out here?” he asked them, according to one attendee.
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a supporter of the GOP’s “cut, cap and balance” plan who now supports Boehner’s bill, said there was more arm-twisting from leadership earlier in the week. But the lobbying took on a more “academic” tone, he said, after members told Boehner that “the pressure is just causing me to dig in my heels.”
Even Boehner’s “get your ass in line” statement Wednesday morning was delivered in a more motivational than threatening tone, Ribble said. He estimated that more than 20 members had gone from undecided to leaning yes in the last three days.
“Nobody wants to be backed into a corner,” Ribble said.
The Speaker’s office began reworking the bill following a finding by the Congressional Budget Office that the original legislation cut the deficit by $850 billion over 10 years, not the $1.2 trillion Boehner had claimed. Because the bill authorizes $900 billion in new debt, the estimate threatened Boehner’s pledge that spending cuts would exceed the increase in the debt limit.
Late Wednesday, the Speaker’s office announced the CBO had reviewed its revisions to the bill and found that it cut $917 billion over 10 years, which would meet Boehner’s commitment to slash more than the House authorized in new borrowing. The change also bumped up the level of immediate spending cuts to $22 billion for fiscal year 2012.
A leadership aide confirmed that a House vote was set for Thursday, and GOP leaders planned to brief rank-and-file lawmakers on the changes in a morning conference meeting.
McCarthy told The Hill that leaders were looking to cut more spending rather than reduce the increase in the debt limit to meet Boehner’s commitment. The bill would raise the debt ceiling through sometime February, setting up a confrontation with Obama, who has vowed to veto an extension that does not go through 2012.
The consequences of failure were also weighing on members, who acknowledged that if Boehner’s bill did not advance, a competing proposal from Reid, which Boehner has denounced, would gain traction.
“If John’s bill doesn’t pass, then in effect we’ve taken ourselves away from the table, and we turn it over to Reid and the president,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said.
Boehner pitched the bill to members as a way to force both the Senate’s and the president’s hand. If the House passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling with just days remaining before the Aug. 2 deadline, the thinking went, Senate Democrats would have little choice but to approve, and Obama would be forced, however reluctantly, to sign it.
Reid rebutted that argument, urging Boehner to abandon his proposal and vowing to send an amended version back to the House if it made it to the upper chamber. Reid also circulated a letter from the entire 53-member Democratic caucus that vowed to oppose the Boehner bill.The sparring raised the likelihood that even if Boehner’s bill passes, House Republicans would have to vote again on a debt-ceiling bill in a matter of days.
Conservative groups continued to oppose the bill, but Boehner won the backing of the GOP super-PAC Crossroads GPS, which said Wednesday it would support lawmakers who voted for the plan.
Tensions within the GOP conference erupted at the morning meeting when the chairman of the Republican Study Committee apologized to lawmakers for staff emails that urged conservative groups to lobby members against the Boehner bill.
After Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stood and apologized, one GOP lawmaker shouted, “Fire him!” in reference to the staffer, according to a Republican in the room.
Cristina Marcos, Bernie Becker, Michael O’Brien and Molly K. Hooper contributed.