By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 02/11/14 12:12 PM EST
Inside a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told rank-and-file members that the leadership’s latest plan to tie a military pension provision to an extension of the $17.2 trillion debt limit had failed to win enough support, forcing him to schedule a vote on a “clean” bill that will be carried by Democrats.
“It’s a disappointing moment, I can tell you that,” Boehner told reporters at a press conference after the meeting.
The move is a stunning turnaround for the Speaker, who, after taking the gavel in 2011, demanded that an increase in the nation’s borrowing authority could only pass the House if it were accompanied by an equal or greater amount in spending cuts and reforms.
But since President Obama signed a significant deficit reduction agreement that summer, he has refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling for the last two years, and Republicans have repeatedly tried and failed to agree on concessions to demand.
The lack of consensus within the majority has sapped its leverage, leading to Boehner’s decision on Tuesday to hand control of the floor over to Democrats.
“We don’t have 218 votes, and when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he told reporters.
The Speaker said Republicans would provide “a minimum” of votes for the bill, which will in all likelihood make it the most lopsided tally in the three years of Boehner’s tenure.
“I’ll be one of them,” he said.
Leaving the press conference, a rueful Boehner softly crooned “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the Disney song with the lyrics “My oh my, what a wonderful day!”
A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he would also vote for the bill.
The leadership plans to hold a separate vote on the change to military pensions, paid for by extending sequester cuts to Medicare providers.
Boehner said he told house Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he would need “virtually every Democrat” to vote for the straight increase in the debt limit, a measure that the White House and Democratic leaders have long sought.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the Senate budget chief who has hammered Republicans on the issue, called the decision “encouraging news.”
“House Republicans seem to have finally realized that Democrats aren’t going to pay a ransom to allow the federal government to pay its bills,” Murray said. “And I am hopeful that we can truly step away from the constant crises and debt-limit brinkmanship to build on the bipartisan progress we made in our budget deal.”
If all 201 Democrats vote yes, 16 Republicans would need to support the clean debt-ceiling increase for it to pass. But some Republicans could also vote “present,” which would lower the total needed to pass. Because of vacancies in the House, 217 votes instead of the normal 218 constitute a majority if all members vote.
The House Democrats’ chief vote-counter, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), told reporters Tuesday that he could get “north of 180” Democrats for the bill.
Boehner’s announcement was met with silence inside the party meeting, one lawmaker said. “It was real quiet,” said the member.
“The Speaker made an announcement, and it is now up to getting 218,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip.
The leadership plan unveiled just on Monday would have reversed $6 billion in cuts to military pensions that were enacted in December’s budget deal. The proposal gained little traction, but at least one member, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), stood up to ask that both that plan and the clean bill get votes on the House floor.
The clean bill likely will suspend the debt ceiling until March 2015, well after the November midterm elections.
Dent is one of a number of centrist Republicans who will likely have to vote for the debt-limit extension given the staunch opposition of conservatives, and he complained inside the meeting that his colleagues on the right were once again in the position of driving the leadership’s considerations.
“I’m not going to let the country default on its obligations under any circumstances,” Dent said. “I think more consideration should be given to those members who have the capacity to vote 'yes' on the debt ceiling than those who will always be voting 'no,' ” he added, describing his message to the party.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of the Speaker, said Boehner expects to get the Republican votes he needs, despite frustration that they will have to sacrifice politically.
“The sad thing is the people who are going to pass it wanted some cover, they needed the cover and they didn't get it,” he said.
Republicans will have overwhelming support from Democrats on a clean debt-ceiling bill, Democratic leaders predicted Tuesday.
“The president has ... demanded a clean debt ceiling, and I think there will broad support within the Democratic Caucus for a clean debt ceiling,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said after a closed-door meeting of the group. “The numbers will speak for themselves,” he added. “Obviously, if this bill is going to pass, it'll have to be done in a bipartisan way.”
Pelosi has warned Republicans all year that Democrats would support nothing but a clean debt-limit bill — a statement she amplified on Tuesday.
“That's what our position has always been, and the Speaker has been very gracious in his conversations with us as to see what we would vote for. And we told him we would vote for a clean [debt-ceiling hike],” Pelosi said. “No matter who the president is and who controls the Congress, the full faith and credit of the United States of America is not negotiable.”
Boehner’s decision prompted an immediate division among conservative groups. A spokesman for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Ryan Ellis, called the move “absolutely the right call.” Norquist had criticized the earlier leadership plan for reversing cuts in the just-enacted budget.
But the Senate Conservatives Fund blasted the move, releasing a statement calling for Boehner to be replaced as Speaker.
The Club for Growth said it would negatively score votes in favor of the bill. “When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt ceiling increase, we thought it was a joke. But it's not. Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party,” the Club's Andy Roth said.
Heritage Action, another conservative groups, also is expected to key vote against the bill. “A clean debt ceiling suspension is irresponsible given our nation’s looming fiscal challenges,” Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said.
Conservatives within the Republican conference were also split in recent weeks. Some wanted Boehner to fight harder for deep spending cuts, while others said he should move quickly to a clean debt-ceiling increase because any effort to extract concessions from Democrats would be futile in the face of Obama’s refusal to negotiate.
The $6 billion military pension cut had been demanded during December budget talks by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan declined to comment to The Hill on Boehner's decision on Tuesday.
—Mike Lillis contributed.
This story was posted at 9:59 a.m. and updated at 2:16 p.m.