John Boehner’s Debt Ceiling Plan: Can He Get the Republican Votes?

John Batchelor on the latest House GOP budget vote count—and the consequences of failure.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Update: After days of arm twisting by Speaker John Boehner, the GOP leadership has postponed a final vote on his debt-ceiling plan. It’s not clear yet when the vote will be rescheduled, though Republican staffers still expect it to come Thursday night. Even if it wins passage, which is not yet assured, the Senate has promised to doom the bill, which would cut the deficit by $917 billion over 10 years while raising the debt ceiling for 10 months. "No Democrat will vote for a short-term Band-Aid that would put our economy at risk and put the nation back in this untenable situation a few short months from now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said earlier.

How close is the vote in the House for the Boehner plan for raising the national debt limit and controlling spending without raising taxes during this Great Recession and Minor Recovery?

The magic number is 216 votes to carry the House. (Two representatives will be absent.) The opinion of the House majority leadership is that there are zero Democratic votes. “Mrs. Pelosi is making certain of that,” says a Republican agent with working knowledge of the whip count. The total must come from the Republican caucus alone, which has 240 voting members. The Tea Party-infused freshman class of 87 or 89 has fractured in many directions. For example, freshmen Tea Party victors Daniel Webster of Florida, Steve Pearce of New Mexico, and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania have indicated, after resonant lobbying by the Chamber of Commerce and others, that they will vote with Speaker Boehner. The Tea Party candidates of 2010 are no longer speaking or acting with one voice.

In the end, the GOP only has 24 votes to lose in the House before the bill fails. The dilemma for the House leadership comes down to two questions: how many “no"s are there—and how many “Hell no"s? Because the “Hell no"s cannot be moved any time before hell freezes over.

If Boehner’s plan clears the hurdle, the GOP is optimistic about its chances. “If we get the vote in the House,” continues the Republican source, “then Speaker Boehner is sure that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell can jam it through the Senate.”

Not that there won’t be trouble in the Senate. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have already said that they will lead a filibuster in the Senate even if the Boehner plan passes, and Rand Paul repeated his certainty on my talk-radio show within these last hours when asked if he would filibuster. “Yes,” the junior senator from Kentucky answered.

The filibuster will complicate the clock management for the Aug. 2 deadline, when the credit card of the U.S. will be exhausted. It will take at least three calendar days to play out the filibuster and move to a cloture vote. “It will be close,” a source tells me—presuming the House GOP can pass the Boehner bill Thursday evening, so the Senate can start the debate clock Friday.

Is Aug. 2 critical? On the one hand, Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times tells me that the Treasury likely has enough revenue coming in to extend the government check-writing until about Aug. 10.

On the other hand, I am told that the Republican House leadership does not want to risk missing the Aug. 2 date.

“We tell our members,” says a Republican with knowledge of the whip count, “that if this fails, or if we don’t get this done by Aug. 2, then the president is going to blame the terrible economy on us. And every day we don’t get this done, he's going to repeat that we’ve wrecked the economy again.”

So what is the best-case scenario for the Boehner plan? Can the Senate leadership work together with the House to deliver a bill to the White House for signing on Aug. 2?

The House must pass the Boehner plan with at least 216 votes, likely all Republican. Then the Senate must outlast the filibuster debate and vote cloture by Monday, Aug. 1. Then the Senate must pass its version of the Boehner plan, which would likely be “tweaked,” I am told by a close observer, with goodies that the Senate Democrats favor. The legislation must then go back to the House for approval again; because some Senate Democrats will have voted in favor of the adjusted Boehner plan, this will give political cover to some House Democrats to vote with the Republican majority.

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The Wall Street Journal reports, from an excellent House leadership source, that the “Hell no"s are stuck at 16.

My information is that this number is low, and that as of this late hour, the “Hell no"s are easily as many as the close-to-scary 23. The nightmare scenario for the House leadership and John Boehner in these last hours till showdown? That the “Hell no"s are much higher than 23, and the clock strikes failure. If that happens, the GOP loses everything it gained in November of 2010.