The Weak Speaker: How a Failed Debt Vote Disarmed the Nation’s Top Republican

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House Speaker John Boehner failed to muster enough GOP votes to pass his plan to raise the debt limit on Thursday night, throwing into question the fate of Boehner’s proposal as well as that of his speakership. Republican leaders must now rewrite the legislation in order to attract more conservatives as they try to pass a revised version on Friday. But considerable damage has been done. Boehner’s negotiating stance in the ongoing effort to trim deficits and raise the debt ceiling by next Tuesday’s deadline is hobbled; any credibility he had in claiming that his restive members could get behind a consensus debt deal has vanished. The Speaker has gone lame.

The House was expected to vote Thursday evening on Boehner’s legislation, which would raise the debt ceiling through the end of 2011 in exchange for $917 billion in spending cuts and the creation of a special committee to find more savings that would accompany a second debt-ceiling vote in January. It looked as if Boehner would have the votes early Thursday, but by 5 p.m., Republican leaders announced that the vote would be postponed. As hours slipped by, dozens of reporters congregated outside the Speaker’s offices on the second floor of the Capitol. The sun set. Pizzas and sodas were brought in.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy met with Republicans who were leaning against voting for the legislation. Freshmen Reps. Mick Mulvaney, Tim Scott, Jeff Duncan and Trey Gowdy were among those pressured to change their votes. “I’m going to go pray for the leadership because I’m still a no,” Mulvaney said, emerging from McCarthy’s office. Rumors swirled: They were down two votes, then four, then 10. At 10:20 p.m., McCarthy left the Speaker’s office and tersely informed reporters that there would be “no vote tonight.”

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had already declared the House Republican plan dead on arrival in the Senate. But House leaders worked to push the measure through because, as they told their members, it would give them greater leverage in negotiations with the Senate and, perhaps more importantly, their own credibility as dealmakers was on the line. Boehner hoped to force the Senate — and President Obama — to take his version of the debt bill. The Speaker was crafting legislation with Reid until last weekend, but the two split over whether to raise the debt ceiling through 2012 in one vote, as Democrats wanted, or to try for a second debt limit hike in six months. Reid and Obama argued that  holding another tortured debt ceiling debate in January, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, would be politically unwise and economically dangerous.

But after he split with Reid, Boehner was left with a bill that was too far to the left for the ideological purists in his conference. Conservatives balked at $18 billion in Pell Grants for low-income students that Boehner had included to lure Democratic votes. They were also disappointed that the bill only called for $917 billion in cuts. Their preferred legislation – a conservative dream bill known as Cut, Cap and Balance that passed the House earlier in July on a near party-line vote – would’ve halved the projected $7.1 trillion federal 10-year deficit by next year. That bill died in the Senate.

In a highly embarrassing development, Boehner must now move his bill to the right in order to secure enough votes from his own party. The Speaker’s failure exposes an uncomfortable reality for the GOP: A final debt ceiling compromise will likely require a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass the House, and the outspoken conservative wing of the party will not be on board. That could embolden Democrats to seek a more favorable deal, and it leaves Senate Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a weaker hand to negotiate.

Boehner won the speakership last November when Republicans swept into power on a Tea Party tide of discontent. From the outset, it was unclear whether Boehner would be able to keep his unruly freshmen class in line. He surprised the skeptics when he managed to unite most of them behind a 2011 budget deal, which achieved $38.5 billion in cuts  – far less than the $100 billion the newcomers had demanded. But many freshmen felt betrayed when a Congressional Budget Office score later found that many of those cuts were gimmicks that amounted to less than $400 million in net savings.

In the months since, Boehner has wrestled with his freshmen. He tried twice to pass legislation in limited support of President Obama’s action with NATO in Libya. Both bills failed. He was forced to yank a bipartisan patent bill– a version of which passed the Senate 95-5 – before it was voted down in the House. It took a month of heavy whipping to convince enough of his herd to pass the bill.

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Thursday’s failure was partly a tactical error on Boehner’s part. When he took office, he said he would be unlike other modern Speakers. He wanted to give the power back to the rank-and-file. Instead of twisting arms, Boehner believed in education. He prided himself on the being the opposite of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican called “the Hammer” for his heavy handed – and at times ethically questionable – whipping tactics. Boehner tried to open the process up, allowing the minority to put forward amendments and re-empowering committees. “When we took the majority we promised to end the practice of forcing substantial bills through the House in the dark of night,” a GOP leadership aide said late Thursday, “and we take that pledge seriously.”

It was Newt Gingrich in the 1990s who began to consolidate power in the Speaker’s office. That trend peaked with Nancy Pelosi, who was one of the most powerful Speakers in a generation. Members could hardly hold a press conference without her blessing, let alone win plum committee assignments or pass legislation. Boehner often mocked Pelosi for not allowing amendments, and for her use of frivolous post office naming votes to lure members to the floor where she could whip them.

Though heavy handed, Pelosi’s tactics worked. She pushed through health care reform in the House after Reid lost his 60-vote super majority in the Senate. More than a few reporters who covered health care remarked how similar Thursday night’s drama was to the final health care reform vote, albeit with vastly different outcomes. Both votes could have cost the Speakers their jobs; in Pelosi’s case, for overreach, and in Boehner’s, for failing to grasp far enough. During the final push on Boehner’s debt bill this week, the Speaker did finally crack the whip, telling his conference on Wednesday to “Get your ass in line.” But it was too little too late. Boehner’s “leadership is clearly at stake,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said on Thursday night.

Boehner may have made strategic miscalculations as well. Democrats pushed hard to include a debt ceiling increase in the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts last December. Republicans resisted, sensing that debt and deficits would be winning issues for them in the Tea Party-infused 112th Congress. But every attempt by Boehner, who has a legacy of reaching across the aisle to produce No Child Left Behind and sweeping pension reform legislation with the late Senator Teddy Kennedy, to craft a grand bargain of more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction with President Obama has been stymied by protests from his own flock.

So, what comes next? “We have faith that the Senate will reach a compromise that a majority of the folks in the House and a majority of folks in the Senate can support,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on MSNBC late Thursday night. “And that is what the American people want.” Reid has been waiting in the wings to either craft a compromise with Boehner and McConnell, or pass his own version of deficit reduction legislation. But it’s clear now that Speaker Boehner will need Democratic votes to get any compromise through the House. And that leaves the Republican leader with two options: abandon Tea Party freshmen and form a coalition between his most moderate members and most Dems, or potentially allow the last best hope for a debt ceiling deal to fail in his chamber, with nothing but market panic left to make his members reconsider. Either would be a bruising choice for the embattled Speaker.

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