With Debt Vote Looming, House GOP Tries to Repair Its Fractured Coalition

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A day before a pivotal vote that could shape the remainder of his Speakership, John Boehner issued a blunt rallying cry to his restive rank-and-file to support his plan to reduce the deficit and raise the U.S. borrowing authority before an Aug. 2 deadline. At a closed conference meeting on Wednesday morning, according to a GOP source, Boehner urged his troops to “get your ass in line” and that he needed his army to support him in order to battle President Obama and avert the economic and political consequences of failing to strike a deal. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Boehner’s No. 2, told Republicans on Wednesday morning that Democrats had closed ranks behind Obama and the GOP needed to stop squabbling and do the same for their leader.

The House’s high-stakes vote on the Boehner plan, originally slated for Wednesday, was delayed a day after a Congressional Budget Office analysis found the savings it would achieve came up $150 billion short of the $1 trillion threshold required to match the increase in the U.S. borrowing authority. The setback may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As staffers tweak the language of the bill, their bosses were afforded additional time to whip wavering members. With 240 Republicans in the House majority, few — if any — Democrats expected to support the measure and 217 votes required to pass the bill, Boehner can only afford to lose around 20 members.

The crux of the pitch leaders are making, according to Republican sources, is that the Boehner bill, though imperfect, is the last option Republicans have left. As Senate Majority Harry Reid notes, Boehner’s bill will almost certainly stall in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber. But failure in the House would kneecap the Speaker and his party, and leave Reid’s measure as the lone alternative. While it will have to sidestep opposition from Senate Tea Partyers, some House Republicans acknowledge that Reid’s bill would likely pass the House with nearly party-line Democratic support and a few dozen reluctant Republicans.

The appeal is paying dividends, according to several Republicans, spurring some members who had been leaning toward voting against Boehner’s proposal to veer back toward the ‘yes’ column, including freshman Blake Farenthold and iconoclastic presidential candidate Thaddeus McCotter, as well as Marsha Blackburn, Bob Goodlatte, Rob Woodall and Cynthia Lummis. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin freshman, told TIME after a closed conclave House leaders held with the freshman class Wednesday afternoon that he had gone from a “hard no” on Monday to a supporter of the bill. Ribble says Boehner’s approach has been “more motivational coach than berating father,” enumerating the merits of the legislation rather than demanding fealty.

This tack seems to be paying some dividends. “There’s clear momentum,” says a GOP source. There are also signs that some of the fractious freshmen class are awakening to the political reality rather than clinging to hopes that a better solution, like the conservative “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill, will materialize anew. “It doesn’t go far enough, fast enough to me,” said Michigan freshman Bill Huizenga, who nonetheless says he’s “trying to find the path to yes. “

There is still a sizable bloc that remains firmly opposed. Tensions flared Wednesday when it emerged that a staffer at the conservative Republican Study Committee, whose chairman, Jim Jordan, publicly opposes the Boehner bill, had circulated an e-mail to outside interest groups urging them to press vacillating members to reject the bill. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia freshman who says he will vote no, described the sentiment at the meeting as “controlled anger.” An RSC spokesman released a statement apologizing for the e-mail, calling it “clearly inappropriate” and saying Jordan was not aware of it.

Either way, a batch of conservative groups are already vowing to target Tea Party-backed lawmakers who back Boehner’s bill. Tea Party groups gathered for a “hold the line” rally near the Capitol at high noon, featuring three House Republicans who plan to vote against the plan. “While we applaud the efforts of Speaker John Boehner to salvage some small steps to fiscal responsibility, we believe his proposals lack sufficient progress in getting America’s economic future on a better footing,” said Sal Russo, a strategist for Tea Party Express. At a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler said that in an informal survey of grassroots leaders, 82% said they were dissatisfied with Boehner’s stewardship of the House.

Meanwhile, as the GOP tees up a vote on the debt-ceiling bill along with a balanced-budget amendment for Thursday, Reid is lurking in the wings, waiting to see if a failed House vote clears a path for his Senate bill. The GOP’s margin for error remains narrow. Now is Boehner’s last chance to close that gap by convincing his party that flawed legislation is better than the alternative.