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.