It’s enough to make John Boehner cry—and bleed the treasury dry.
The Ohio Republican entered the speakership determined to avoid the chaotic, clumsy arm-twisting and high-wire acts that defined tough votes in the era of GOP predecessors Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.
But Boehner found himself in that very predicament on Thursday—leaning on members and in some cases pleading with them to support his bill to raise the debt ceiling and tackle the nation’s record budget deficits.
Boehner doesn’t trade projects or favors like former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did to win support on tough votes (the earmark ban prevents it, anyway). Boehner’s approach is more direct and based on persuasion. Whatever threats are made (and they tend to be few and far between) they arrive wrapped in subtlety and implication. That means they can be plausibly denied later. Meaning at crunch time, Boehner asks and he either wins the vote or he loses it—one member at time.
That process played out spasmodically on Thursday as the whip count rose and fell and Boehner continued side-car negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on what to do after Reid kills Boehner’s bill.
Nothing flowed smoothly. Republicans intended to vote on Boehner’s bill by 6 p.m. but postponed that when their vote count came up short. Instead of wrestling with the monumental issue of raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and setting in motion no-new-taxes deficit reduction (itself a GOP policy victory), the House found itself foundering in legislative backwaters.
Before holding these votes, House GOP leaders imposed a recess to deepen the appearance of limbo and disorganization. GOP members were ushered one by one into the speaker’s office off the House floor. For a time, heated conversations could be seen through the shade of the window until someone drew the blind to hide the all-too-visible finger pointing.
Meanwhile, lawmakers not drawn into the lobbying vortex loitered around the Speaker’s Lobby looking for scraps of information about timing and vote counts.
Boehner’s test was not only about policy, but politics. Some Republicans objected on policy, arguing the Boehner bill wasn’t as aggressive as the House-passed “cut, cap, and balance” legislation the Senate recently killed. They also objected to a $17 billion boost in federal Pell Grant funding for college tuition negotiated with Reid. Other Republicans, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona among them, feared a razor-thin vote on the Boehner bill would weaken GOP hands in future negotiations with the Senate.
Boehner and his top lieutenants argued that if the speaker’s bill failed, Reid and President Obama would be in position to dictate the terms of a debt-ceiling increase—leaving House Republicans isolated.
Boehner’s team also argued Republicans had won the biggest concession they sought—linking spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase and eliminating the specter of tax increases.
House leaders readily concede the Boehner approach isn’t all the GOP sought, but said it was closer to their original goals than Obama was to his—an increase in the debt ceiling with no strings attached. Boehner pitched his approach as a worthy down-payment.
These are the kinds of arguments Boehner and his 239 GOP charges expected to have this year—just not with themselves. The Democrats’ refusal to aid Boehner made this vote the most visible test of Boehner’s ability to lead, enforce discipline, and quiet rebellion. When Boehner told the rank-and-file earlier this week it was time to get their “asses” in line—it was not the backbenchers whose future was on the line. It was his.
Hence the delays. Boehner could not afford to lose this vote as it would immediately undercut Boehner’s clout with Obama and Reid in all future negotiations.
With the debt clock ticking toward midnight Tuesday (when Treasury now says its borrowing authority will expire without an extension), Boehner can ill-afford a loss of momentum. To press the negotiations forward, Boehner needs a bill he can pass and force Reid to follow through and kill it. If the Boehner bill crumbles, Reid’s bill—which Republicans like even less—becomes the last option to avoid default. That’s an option Boehner is desperately trying to avoid.
The central difference between the two is the duration of the debt-ceiling extension. Reid grants Treasury $2.2 trillion in borrowing authority—until 2013. Boehner extends it until January or February—something Obama and Reid say they won’t accept. There are other differences, but they appear manageable if the duration of new borrowing authority can be settled (a very big if).
But the intensity of the debate, the intricacies of the policy decisions, and the gravity of a default scenario have warped the process and crumpled Boehner’s tidy legislative blueprint.
That’s made his bid for support both spirited and somewhat desperate. Boehner needed this vote. Boehner must prove that he can lead and that he can count. One begets the other.
He has to get both right. If he doesn’t, the financial markets and countless Americans worried about their economic future may start to wonder if they can count on House Republicans.
This article appears in the July 29, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.