The GOP’s Debt Test: Can the ‘Hell No’ Caucus Get to Yes?

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Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan stands with Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee as they listen to Senator Pat Toomey speak at a press conference in Washington on July 26, 2011.

The first thing to know about the group of House Republicans who will determine the fate of Speaker John Boehner’s bill to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling is that many of them came to Congress to say no. This Tea Party-infused contingent, many of them freshman, arrived on a wave of frustration with the status quo. Its members delivered a million warnings about the death of the American dream, “think of the children” speeches about our country’s future, and ceaseless critiques of “business as usual” in Washington. In a recent YouGov survey, two-thirds of Republican voters said they preferred a representative who “sticks to his or her principles, no matter what.” The debt-limit debate is the showdown for which the Tea Party has been girding all along, the perfect forum for a principled stand.

Seven months into their reign, it is also an inflection point for the new GOP House Majority. They see the debt-limit skirmish as a moment of genuine leverage, a chance to turn a routine procedural vote into a referendum on the two parties’ differing visions of government and to fit D.C. with the fiscal straitjacket it needs. For the most part, they have succeeded. John Boehner’s two-part bill to raise the debt limit, reduce the deficit and avert economic calamity meets the GOP’s chief demands: it pairs an increase in the U.S. borrowing authority with equal or greater spending cuts, and it does not raise taxes. But as Boehner was the first to admit, it’s not perfect. And perfection is the impossible standard to which the ‘Hell No’ caucus of the Republican party aspires.

With Boehner’s bill rolling toward a vote on Thursday, House Republican leaders are scrambling to sway undecided lawmakers with an arsenal of personal phone calls, one-on-one appeals and meetings on the floor. Another full conference meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning. There are 240 Republicans in the House, and the GOP needs 217 votes to pass the measure. While Republicans have been touting the conservative Cut, Cap and Balance’s bill’s bipartisan support, just five Democrats voted for it. One of them, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler of Tennessee* North Carolina has already come out against the Boehner plan, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that Boehner’s bill would earn “very few” Democratic votes. Which leaves Republicans with roughly two dozen defections to spare.

(MORE: The ‘Hell No’ Caucus Makes Its Stand)

While GOP House leaders and their allies say they’re optimistic, it’s still unclear if they have enough votes to nudge the bill over the finish line. And the whipping effort became more difficult late Tuesday, when a report from the Congressional Budget Office, the Capitol’s nonpartisan fiscal referee, found that Boehner’s bill fell $150 billion short of the $1 trillion savings it claimed. Boehner’s camp cast the analysis as a hiccup. “We promised that we will cut spending more than we increase the debt limit–with no tax hikes–and we will keep that promise,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “As we speak, Congressional staff are looking at options to re-write the legislation to meet our pledge.” That process will delay a planned Wednesday vote to Thursday, and it may alarm conservatives still wary of Boehner’s arithmetic after a budget deal in April cut less than advertised. But it buys GOP leadership another day to cajole recalcitrant freshmen.

For their part, conference dissidents say the votes aren’t there. “I am confident, as of this morning, that there were not 218 Republicans in support of the plan,” Jim Jordan, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told reporters on Tuesday. The vote could be uncomfortably close. Nine Republicans voted against Cut, Cap and Balance–a Tea Party fantasy that had no shot at passing the Senate–largely because it wasn’t conservative enough. It’s safe to assume they’ll vote no on Boehner’s plan as well. Thirty-nine more have signed a pledge not to raise the debt limit unless the legislation hews to the principles of Cut, Cap and Balance–including the passage of a constitutional balanced-budget amendment to send to the states, which is not going to happen by the Aug. 2 deadline, if ever.

(MORE: Mixed Response from GOP as Boehner Pushes Unilateral Debt Plan)

The key question is how many of those Republicans will decide that the deficit reduction, spending caps and balanced-budget votes the Boehner bill achieves are good enough. Several already have. Among the pledge signers supporting the bill are Tea Party favorite Allen West and fellow freshmen James Lankford and Bill Flores. At a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made an impassioned argument for the Boehner plan. “The debt-limit vote sucks,” Cantor said, in a pep talk urging the GOP to close ranks behind a bill that forces a second vote — and a second debate on touchy issues like taxes and entitlements — in six months. Cantor told the conference to “stop grumbling and whining and to come together as conservatives and rally behind the Speaker and call the President’s bluff,” according to a GOP aide, who characterized the meeting as “very upbeat.”

Earlier in the day, when the vote was still planned for Wednesday, several members said they hadn’t had enough time to parse the details of the legislation, which was released late Monday night. But a number of Republicans said that while they appreciated Boehner’s efforts to craft the best possible bill, they weren’t sure it was good enough. “A lot of folks are simply not there,” Tom Graves of Georgia, who came to the House in a 2010 special election, told TIME, saying he would vote against the measure “unless they can show me where they can tie in a balanced-budget amendment somehow that can be sent to the states.”

Another freshman, Jeff Landry of Louisiana, says that he’s “keeping an open mind,” but that his two biggest concerns were the balanced-budget amendment and sufficiently deep spending cuts. He didn’t think Boehner’s bill cleared the bar on either count. “I’m not going to compromise my country to make some deal,” he says. California Congressman John Campbell told reporters that on the surface, the bill didn’t appear “to be substantial enough.” And freshman Steve Southerland said, “If I had to vote right now, my vote would be no.” Others, including Tim Huelskamp and Phil Gingrey, also indicated they would vote no.

(MORE: How Republicans Compromise (With Themselves))

This shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve followed the fierce House freshman class, many of whom treat dark warnings about the perils of a possible default as scare tactics to extend the age of profligacy. They consider compromise and capitulation to be synonymous. When his bid for a grand bargain abruptly collapsed last Friday, Obama rattled off the concessions he had made and asked, referring to restive House Republicans, “Can they say yes to anything?”

Like the grand bargain, Boehner’s bill would seem to carry major appeal for the GOP. It satisfies their original demands, forces a second showdown Obama wants to avoid, and jibes with the parameters of the bill they prefer but can’t have. But it still may not be enough to get the “Hell No” caucus on board. Polling indicates their constituents prefer they say no. Tea Party activists and conservative advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth are whipping against the bill. If the “Hell No” caucus can’t find a way to say yes at this critical juncture, Boehner’s speakership will suffer a crushing blow, and they will pave the way for Senate Majority Harry Reid’s competing plan to receive a favorable hearing in the House.  “We’re going to find out,” says Boehner ally Tom Cole of Oklahoma, “whether they want to be heard or they want to make a difference.”

Correction: This article originally misstated that Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler is from Tennessee. He is from North Carolina.

Alex Altman is a Washington correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.