Harry Reid’s Canny Waiting Game

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with reporters following the Democrats' weekly policy meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., July 19, 2011.

The House on Thursday is expected to vote on its latest iteration of a debt ceiling increase matched with spending cuts. With less than a week left before the government starts suspending services to avoid default, the Senate has yet to act. This is because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is patiently waiting for the House to finish its latest round of histrionics– Thursday’s vote will likely be their fourth doomed effort to hike the debt-limit this time around — before he proceeds with his legislation.

There is still a slim chance the House could pass their bill. But with Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan claiming that 39 of his conservatives already oppose the bill and with Democratic sources saying that House Speaker John Boehner will get less than five Democrats on board, it is not looking likely. The last debt ceiling vote passed 236-190 with the support of Jordan’s group and five Democrats. By my count, Boehner is at least 21 votes short this time around. But miracles happen. “We expect strong Republican support on the vote tomorrow,” said Erica Elliott, a spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Whip. That isn’t exactly a prediction of victory.

Outside forces seemed to be lining up against Boehner and for Reid. According to CNN’s Erin Burnett, Standard & Poors is warning that Boehner’s two-step plan would likely trigger a downgrade in the U.S.’s AAA bond rating. Conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation came out against the Boehner plan. And the anti-tax king himself, Grover Norquist, blessed the Reid plan, declaring on CNN, “It does not raise taxes.”

Even if Boehner manages to pass his bill through the House, it’s DOA in the Senate. “Speaker Boehner’s plan is not a compromise. It was written for the Tea Party, not the American people,” Reid told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “Democrats will not vote for it. Democrats will not vote for it. Democrats will not vote for it.”

With the House and the Senate advancing two competing plans, whichever chamber votes first has the greatest risk of failure. And if one plan fails, the other is strengthened. At the moment, Reid doesn’t have seven GOP votes to get his bill past a filibuster in the Senate. That’s why he’s hanging back and still talking to Republicans. “I told my caucus today, not a few minutes ago, any input you have from your Republican friends,” Reid said on Tuesday, “I’m open to compromise.” While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said  that the Reid plan, as it is now, “should fail,” his No. 2 Senator Jon Kyl told reporters that bipartisan talks are ongoing behind the scenes. If and when the Boehner bill fails — be it in the House on Thursday or later in the Senate, Reid becomes the last man standing in the debt debate. With the clock ticking, the House will likely have to swallow whatever the Senate passes.

How can this be, you may ask, if the House can’t even pass Boehner’s plan? Because Democrats would support the Reid proposal. “Reid’s plan is not the plan I would’ve been for, it’s not the plan I like,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday, but it “would get very close to all of our members’” votes. Which would mean that Boehner would only have to deliver 30 or 40 Republicans – a much easier lift than 217 (a majority with two vacancies in the House).

House Republicans moan that the Reid bill is full of “gimmicks”: $400 billion in assumed interest savings from smaller deficits and $1 trillion from drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Republicans in both chambers have already used the budgeting tricks from Reid’s plan in past bills authored by the GOP. The House bill, meanwhile, would pass $1.2 trillion in cuts now and would form a commission to find another $1.8 trillion in cuts before the end of the year. Democrats – and market experts – argue that coming back at this again in the middle of an election season would not only be harder, but that another round of brinkmanship would further undermine confidence in the U.S. economy.

For months, Republicans have blasted Reid for not putting forward a deficit reduction plan. But if Reid manages to push his proposal through both chambers, his decision to wait would be vindicated; Congress would get its debt-ceiling deal, and Reid would get credit for averting economic Armageddon.