John Boehner’s Debt Debacle Forced Withdrawal of His House Bill

Patricia Murphy on what forced John Boehner to withdraw his debt bill.

House Speaker John Boehner was looking for 216 votes and a major adult moment from his caucus Thursday when he brought up his two-step proposal to raise the nation’s debt limit in time to beat the looming Aug. 2 deadline.

But after a day that began with the flourish of freshmen declaring their support for the speaker’s bill, and ended in a swirl of chaotic arm twisting, Boehner called off the nighttime vote on his proposal rather than face the humiliation of a defeat and a mutiny among his rebellious troops.

The failed vote attempt delayed for one crucial day a possible solution to the debt crisis on Capitol Hill and laid bare the divide within the Republican Party between its pragmatists, who know that in Washington, good is sometimes good enough, and the newly minted conservative freshmen, dubbed “the kamikazes” by House staffers, because of their unnerving penchant for acting out in a way that ignores Washington leadership—even their own.

The day began for Boehner even better than he could have hoped. After months of listening sessions and pizza parties with rank-and-file members, the Ohio lawmaker had warned his caucus to give up on perfection and get in line behind his bill.

At a GOP caucus meeting Thursday morning, Rep. Mike Kelly, a freshman from Pennsylvania and former defensive end for Notre Dame, handed out signs with the Fighting Irish motto “Play like a champion!” Kelly pumped up his colleagues with a rousing pep talk straight out of Friday Night Lights, calling on his fellow Republicans to “knock the shit out of 'em.”

Later, a group of GOP first-termers called a news conference to declare they would be with the speaker on the vote. But even Boehner’s newest allies said they did not much like his proposal.

“Is this as big as we wanted to go? Heck, no. We wanted to go bigger. We ran on going bigger,” said Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.). “But this is the only proposal on the table that accomplishes the goals that we set out to do.”

The trouble for the leadership began Thursday afternoon, when his whip operation, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, realized they were falling short of the 216 GOP yes votes they needed from to pass Boehner’s package.

Adding to the leadership's headaches, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had announced earlier that although five Democrats had broken ranks to vote for the Republicans’ “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill, none would support Boehner’s pared-down plan now.

“The Boehner bill will not pass because it has Democratic votes,” Pelosi said.

As time ticked toward the evening vote, an announcement rippled through the lobby of the House floor that the vote would be delayed for perhaps an hour, maybe more, an ominous sign for Capitol Hill veterans that Boehner was in trouble.

Still short of the commitments he needed, Boehner launched his own furious brand of shuttle diplomacy, rounding up a parade of nos and maybes, and asking what they needed to get to yes.

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Some conservatives declared the bill “not good enough” and “too small,” while others had wondered aloud why they would vote for an imperfect bill in the House, only to see it killed in the Senate.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) went to Boehner’s ornate Capitol office as a no and came out a no, “bloodied and beaten,” as he described it. Like Gohmert, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chair of the House GOP’s internal think tank, went in against the bill and emerged unchanged.

On his way into the office of whip McCarthy, "no" vote Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida told CBS News that the only way he would change his vote would be “if the Lord takes me home right now.”

The leaders had more luck with other freshmen. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and two other undecided freshmen went in as maybes. One of them, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, emerged a yes.

As the holdouts were worked over by Boehner, McCarthy, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a handful of GOP freshmen sought solace in the House chapel. Rep. Jeff Duncan called fellow South Carolinian Mick Mulvaney to join him in the chapel to pray for Republican leaders. “I think they need it,” Duncan told Fox News.

As 6 p.m. turned to 7, some Republicans were still unsure how they would vote. Posey was spotted walking through the Capitol, again in search of Boehner, who remained in the throes of trying to persuade Posey to come over to his side.

By 8 p.m. Boehner & Co. were still summoning their members and leaning on their sense of duty, loyalty, and prudence—or just asking a really, really big favor. Tall stacks of Al’s Pizza boxes were delivered to the whip's office as the night wore on.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) was uwavering in the hours before the vote, insisting he had already compromised by voting for "Cut, Cap, and Balance" and needed a measure bigger and bolder than the plan Boehner had concocted. “I want something systemic that transcends election cycles,” he said. Even after an evening visit to Boehner’s chambers, Gowdy held firm.

Knowing that they lacked the votes to close their deal, McCarthy announced at 10:30 that the vote would be delayed at least until Friday. McCarthy did not say whether Boehner’s current bill would the one brought up for a vote, but staffers were told to prepare for changes to the bill.

Even if GOP members can agree on a package, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasted no time promising to kill in the Democratic-controlled Senate whatever comes over from the House, and to do it as soon as possible. “As soon as the House completes its vote, the Senate will move to take up that bill, and it will be defeated,” Reid said.

Despite the threats between the chambers, the proposals from Boehner and Reid are more similar than different, with both raising the debt limit, cutting trillions from the budget, and creating commissions to come up with future federal cuts down the road. But while Reid’s plan would punt another vote until after the 2012 elections, Boehner’s envisions another bill, with another debate, less than a year from now—before President Obama faces the voters.

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, called the bill an “abdication of responsibility.”

“This bill is going nowhere. It tries to bind the wounds of a divided Republican caucus,” Levin said. “We should do better. We have to do better.”

As Republicans hunted for votes and Democrats promised to block any progress the GOP makes, Rep. Elijah Cummings said that with so much dysfunction between the House and Senate, it is time for Obama to reengage in the talks or face a massive default.

“I think he has to get in there and sit down, even if he has to lock the doors, say, ‘Look, guys, there are no alternatives,’” the Maryland Democrat said. “And I don’t think they should come out until they’re done.”

Pelosi agreed that that once the votes are over, and both chambers prove they cannot pass each other’s bills, Obama needs to work with Reid, Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to come up with a plan far better than what failed in the House on Thursday, which Pelosi warned would cripple entitlements to the point that seniors should “kiss Medicare goodbye.”

Pelosi added that she had faith Boehner could negotiate with the president, even if he couldn’t pass a bill through the House that she felt was responsible.

“If he could do this, the right thing, he would, but there are forces within his caucus not enabling him to do that,” Pelosi said.