House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday expended a tremendous amount of time and energy on a debt-ceiling bill that is doomed to fail, because his credibility as leader of the House depends upon it. If Mr. Boehner can't marshal his Republicans to back him on this crucial vote, he risks losing his leverage in the debt-ceiling endgame.
“If this were a parliamentary system, this would have been the equivalent of a no confidence vote,” says Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget analyst and partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington.
Thursday afternoon GOP leaders delayed the vote on Boehner's debt-ceiling plan – typically a sign that they have yet to find the 217 votes needed to pass the bill. Even if the Boehner plan makes it through the House, however, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada says that the has the votes to make sure it goes nowhere in the Senate. President Obama has threatened to veto it.
The bill would raise the debt ceiling by at least $2.5 trillion in two steps. Similarly, spending cuts to offset the debt-ceiling increase would be done in two steps – an initial $915 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years to be followed by another $1.8 billion in cuts to be subsequently negotiated by a bipartisan congressional panel.
House Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the measure, as are conservative interest groups, such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which have been hammering House Republicans to oppose the Boehner package.
“History has shown that future spending cuts rarely materialize,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs for the Club for Growth, which is best known for financing campaigns against Republicans deemed not conservative enough. "Nothing binds a future Congress from erasing them.”
Yet with Washington set to lose its authority to borrow funds Tuesday, Boehner continues to struggle to find the votes to keep his plan alive.
It is a power play between Boehner and conservative deficit hawks who are so far refusing to be whipped into line.
Conservatives wanted Republicans to insist that the debt limit be raised only on condition that both houses of Congress pass a balanced-budget amendment and send it on to the states. They also wanted deeper spending cuts and enforceable spending caps. That bill passed the House on a near party line vote, but it was tabled in the Senate.
As a experienced Washington dealmaker, Boehner is now trying to find something that is palatable to these conservatives but at the same time moves the process closer to an ultimate solution.
When Boehner dropped the requirement that Congress pass a balanced-budget amendment before raising the debt limit, though, he put at risk the votes of 39 GOP House members, who had signed a pledge that they would not vote to raise the debt limit until Congress passes a constitutional amendment. That means that Republicans will need Democratic votes to get to the 217 majority needed to pass Boehner's bill. House Democrats remain solidly opposed.
“John Boehner was in an impossible position to begin with it – and now the whole world knows it,” says Mr. Collender.