Boehner on debt proposal: 'We don’t have the votes, but we’re getting there’

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Republican lawmakers Thursday he does not yet have the votes to pass his debt-limit bill.

Though members emerged from a closed-door meeting saying they believe the Speaker will secure the 216 he needs by Thursday evening, when the House is set to vote, Boehner still will need to convince dozens of undecided members to back his measure.

“We don’t have the votes, but we’re getting there,” Boehner said in the meeting, according to Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) and other Republicans in the room. King said Boehner was “very low-key” a day after he rallied his troops with the exhortation, “Get your ass in line.”

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“He just said it was time to tone things down,” King said.

According to an informal whip list kept by The Hill, 22 Republicans are either no votes or leaning against voting for Boehner’s measure. At least another 44 Republicans are publicly undecided, or their positions are unclear, according to The Hill’s list. Boehner can only afford about two dozen defections if Democrats vote en masse against his measure.

The House is set to vote on the Boehner bill after U.S. financial markets close Thursday evening, giving the Speaker several more hours to secure the last remaining votes.

Republican leaders won over some reluctant members by scheduling Friday votes on two versions of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. One version is an amendment favored by conservatives that includes a requirement that future tax increases be enacted only with a two-thirds majority in Congress. The other version is one deemed more likely to attract Democrats because it does not include the tax provision.

Both balanced-budget amendments are authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). The more Democrat-friendly version also requires a three-fifths vote in each chamber of Congress for any increase in the debt ceiling.

Another reason Boehner needs to secure only 216 votes to win a majority vote on Thursday is the absence of two Democrats, Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), who still is rehabilitating from a January assassination attempt, and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.), who is recovering from colon cancer surgery.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a high-profile conservative who flirted with a presidential run earlier this year, announced to the House Republican Conference that the vote on the “clean” version of the balanced-budget amendment had won his support for the Boehner debt-limit bill.

Democratic leaders are opposed to the measure, and said Thursday they would not help push it over the line.

“I don’t want to speak for every member of the caucus, but this bill will not win because of Democratic votes,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said following a Democratic Caucus meeting. “They have to come up with [the votes] themselves — which they may.”


Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) went a step further, saying Democratic opposition would be unanimous.

“There [are] going to be no votes for the Boehner approach,” Larson said. “I just talked to [Representative] Heath Shuler [(D-N.C.)] — he said not a single Blue Dog is voting for it.”

The bill’s passage would set up a last-minute confrontation with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has vowed to amend the measure, and the White House, which would veto the bill in its current form. The Boehner measure would increase the $14.3 trillion debt limit through around February while cutting $917 billion in spending over 10 years. A subsequent increase in the debt ceiling through 2012 would be conditioned on congressional enactment of a $1.8 trillion deficit-reduction package.

During the meeting, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, held up a Notre Dame sign that read “Play Like A Champion Today!”

“Let’s go knock the s--- out of them,” he cried to cheers.

Kelly was considered likely to vote no, and his switch to supporting Boehner surprised some lawmakers.

Several said the votes on the balanced-budget amendments were key to winning more support from Republicans on the fence.

“A lot of members are very pleased that they are having the opportunity to vote on two balanced-budget amendments tomorrow, and as a result of that they are certainly giving this proposal today a new look,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a lead sponsor of two amendments.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who switched from undecided to a solid yes, said there was “a lot of momentum” behind the bill.

“I don’t like the bill. I think it was negotiated [terribly], but it’s a start,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), another no-to-yes switch. “After 20 years in this business I learned sometimes you just have to eat that apple one bite at a time.”

While Boehner had turned around some members, holdouts remained. 

GOP Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Trey Gowdy (S.C.) said they would vote no on the legislation, despite what Gohmert described as intense pressure from party leaders.

“It feels like TARP did,” Gohmert said, referring to the politically toxic vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. “The pressure from our leadership to cave and vote for TARP feels very similar to the pressure right now.”

It remains an open question whether any changes the Senate makes to the Boehner bill, should it pass Thursday, can make it through the House before the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling deadline.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), now supporting the Boehner bill, said he hoped the Boehner plan did not get amended in the Senate because he does not see a more liberal bill getting passed in the House.

“I think this is about as far as the House is willing to go,” he said.

—Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos contributed.

This story was posted at 11:01 a.m. and updated at 1:01 p.m.