Anatomy of an Implosion

How the House GOP’s fiscal plan fell apart.

Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) departs a press followiong a meeting of House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government shutdown is entering its fifteenth day as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives remain gridlocked on funding the federal government.
National Journal
Tim Alberta Billy House
Oct. 15, 2013, 6:56 p.m.

For House Re­pub­lic­ans, a day that star­ted with hymns of re­sur­rec­tion ended with bag­pipes of buri­al.

Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tues­day morn­ing pitched his mem­bers on the GOP lead­er­ship’s latest — and per­haps fi­nal — plan to raise the debt ceil­ing and re­open the gov­ern­ment. But hours of in­tern­al de­bate, capped by a sur­prise ex­tern­al blow, left the pro­pos­al mor­tally wounded, and once again rendered House lead­er­ship in­cap­able of cor­ralling its ram­bunc­tious rank and file.

The morn­ing meet­ing of House Re­pub­lic­ans star­ted on a high note — per­haps lit­er­ally — as mem­bers sang “Amaz­ing Grace” in a demon­stra­tion of unity. But when Boehner began ar­tic­u­lat­ing the de­tails of lead­er­ship’s plan, the mood in­side the room quickly turned tense, ac­cord­ing to those present.

The pro­pos­al was built on the frame­work be­ing dis­cussed in the Sen­ate — to fund the gov­ern­ment through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceil­ing through Feb. 7. To sweeten the deal, House lead­ers at­tached a two-year delay of the med­ic­al-device tax, as well as lan­guage that would ban gov­ern­ment health care sub­sidies for mem­bers of Con­gress, the pres­id­ent, and mem­bers of the Cab­in­et. The House plan also would in­clude a pro­vi­sion re­quir­ing in­come veri­fic­a­tion for Obama­care sub­sidies and would end the Treas­ury De­part­ment’s abil­ity to ex­haust “ex­traordin­ary meas­ures” when the debt lim­it is ap­proached.

But con­ser­vat­ives wer­en’t sat­is­fied. Why, they ques­tioned their col­leagues, should they have en­dured two weeks of shut­down — not to men­tion a drub­bing in the polls — in ex­change for a pack­age of be­nign policy con­ces­sions that few of them were agit­at­ing for when the fight began?

The meet­ing dragged on for two hours, but crit­ic­al dis­putes were left un­re­solved, ac­cord­ing to con­ser­vat­ive law­makers who emerged wear­ing their skep­ti­cism on their sleeves.

“That’s a work­ing doc­u­ment,” Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said of Boehner’s pro­pos­al after ex­it­ing the meet­ing. “It’s not the fi­nal product.”

Boehner, for his part, agreed, telling re­port­ers after the meet­ing: “There are a lot of opin­ions about what dir­ec­tion to go. There have been no de­cisions about what ex­actly we will do.”

The speak­er em­phas­ized, however, that he still in­ten­ded to bring a bill to the floor on Tues­day.

But by mid-af­ter­noon, even Boehner’s al­lies were be­gin­ning to have their doubts. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., co­chair of the “Tues­day Group” of House cent­rists, said he feared that Boehner’s plan — which he viewed as a “step for­ward” to­ward ne­go­ti­ations with the Sen­ate — did not have enough sup­port among House con­ser­vat­ives.

He was right. Around that same time, two lead­ing con­ser­vat­ives, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mick Mul­vaney of South Car­o­lina, emerged from Boehner’s of­fice look­ing de­cidedly un­enthused. Jordan, who had grim­aced earli­er in the day while de­scrib­ing the morn­ing meet­ing as “a nice fam­ily dis­cus­sion,” now re­fused to com­ment.

Mean­while, rank-and-file mem­bers quietly ducked in­to private meet­ings in the Cap­it­ol of­fice build­ings, voicing their con­cerns and hear­ing those of their col­leagues. Some law­makers echoed what had been said in the con­fer­ence meet­ing — that a ban on health care sub­sidies should ex­tend to a broad­er swath of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing Cap­it­ol Hill staffers. Oth­ers com­plained about the pro­posed con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that would ex­pire Jan. 15, and ar­gued that any short-term fund­ing bill should ex­pire this year.

Both points, raised by a vo­cal ma­jor­ity of mem­bers who spoke with lead­er­ship, were suc­cess­fully ad­op­ted in­to a re­vised bill that was pre­pared to be sent to the Rules Com­mit­tee by late af­ter­noon.

In­deed, there had been an af­ter­noon-long ef­fort to craft the right com­bin­a­tion to win the 217 votes needed for pas­sage. But the horse-trad­ing left many mem­bers, in­clud­ing some who had met per­son­ally with lead­er­ship, con­fused about what, ex­actly, was still left in the plan.

When the dust settled, there were more sub­trac­tions than ad­di­tions. Gov­ern­ment fund­ing would ex­pire one month soon­er than ori­gin­ally pro­posed: Dec. 15 rather than Jan. 15. But the debt ceil­ing would still be lif­ted through Feb. 7. Re­moved was a re­quire­ment to hold a budget con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate. Also nixed was the in­come-veri­fic­a­tion re­quire­ment. Even­tu­ally, lead­er­ship even yanked the two-year med­ic­al-device tax delay.

But some mem­bers wer­en’t sat­is­fied with this re­vised pack­age. Bot­tom line, they had sworn for weeks not to sup­port any con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that did not bring dra­mat­ic change to the Af­ford­able Care Act. And, go­ing back even fur­ther, they had long prom­ised not to raise the debt ceil­ing un­less there were cor­res­pond­ing re­forms to man­dat­ory spend­ing. This pro­pos­al did not meet either cri­terion.

The chaos in Wash­ing­ton, in the words of one con­ser­vat­ive mem­ber, would have been “all for noth­ing” if House Re­pub­lic­ans passed this pack­age.

They de­cided to push back, ur­ging lead­er­ship to in­clude a one-year delay in the im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama­care. Of course, Boehner and his team were past the point of en­ter­tain­ing such an idea. But rank-and-file mem­bers, rest­less after nearly three weeks of in­cre­ment­al re­treat from their ori­gin­al po­s­i­tion of de­fund­ing Obama­care, would not sup­port this fi­nal salvo from their lead­er­ship.

As the op­pos­i­tion from these law­makers came in­to fo­cus late Tues­day af­ter­noon, and lead­er­ship pre­pared to move its pack­age to the Rules Com­mit­tee, a bomb­shell dropped on Cap­it­ol Hill: Her­it­age Ac­tion, the power­ful out­side con­ser­vat­ive group, was key-vot­ing against the House meas­ure.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the pro­posed deal will do noth­ing to stop Obama­care’s massive new en­ti­tle­ments from tak­ing root,” read a state­ment from the group.

The an­nounce­ment took mem­bers by sur­prise. There were whis­pers around the Cap­it­ol com­plex all day long that Her­it­age Ac­tion had prom­ised to re­main neut­ral so as not to un­der­mine the new­found har­mony of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence.

The fal­lout was fast and far-reach­ing. Ac­cord­ing to GOP aides, sev­er­al on-the-fence con­ser­vat­ives quickly in­formed House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy, R-Cal­if., that they would be vot­ing no. Sup­port­ers of the Boehner plan, in­clud­ing some con­ser­vat­ives who were de­term­ined to keep the House uni­fied, were furi­ous.

“So what’s their plan?” seethed a top con­ser­vat­ive aide, whose boss had planned to sup­port the pack­age, mo­ments after Her­it­age Ac­tion rocked the Cap­it­ol.

The group didn’t spe­cify an al­tern­at­ive, and it didn’t need to. It was a nail in the pro­pos­al’s coffin.

Twenty minutes after Her­it­age Ac­tion made its an­nounce­ment, the Rules Com­mit­tee post­poned its hear­ing. Mo­ments later, mem­bers of Boehner’s lead­er­ship team began gath­er­ing in his of­fice. There, they quickly con­cluded what mem­bers had been whis­per­ing all af­ter­noon: They did not have the votes.

Boehner’s last-ditch bill — which in the span of 10 hours had been born, beaten, and re­vived — was dead.

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