‘Clean’ Debt Ceiling Bill Squeaks by House
Policy + Politics

‘Clean’ Debt Ceiling Bill Squeaks by House


The House passed a yearlong suspension of the Treasury’s debt limit Tuesday in a vote that left Republicans once again ceding control to Democrats, following a collapse in support for an earlier proposal advanced by GOP leaders.

In a narrow vote, 221-201, 28 Republicans voted with 193 Democrats to approve a “clean” extension of the federal government’s borrowing authority — one without strings attached — sending the legislation to the Senate for a possible final vote later this week. Two Democrats and 199 Republicans voted no.

Related:  Has the GOP's Debt-Ceiling Fever Really Broken? 

The vote came two weeks before the Feb. 27 debt-limit deadline set by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and once again underscored the House leadership’s inability to corral Republicans behind a debt-ceiling plan. “The natural reluctance is obvious,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip.

Conservative advocacy groups reacted negatively to Boehner’s plan to bring the clean bill to a vote, with spokesmen for Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth urging members to vote “no” and including the vote on their scorecards, which serve as guides for their supporters. “When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt-ceiling increase, we thought it was a joke,” said Barney Keller, a Club for Growth adviser. “But it’s not. Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund, an outspoken tea-party group, blasted Boehner for his eleventh-hour decision in an e-mail, saying “Boehner must be replaced.” They also launched a petition seeking to encourage at least 15 House Republicans to refuse to support Boehner for speaker -- a move that would deprive him of a majority of the House.

All afternoon, as members fretted about their travel plans because of an impending snowstorm, Republican whips scrambled to “get to 18,” as one leadership aide described the push to get enough House Republicans behind a clean extension so that the proposed legislation could pass with mostly Democratic support. House leaders struggled mightily to get Republicans to back a bill disliked by conservatives, with many members saying in whip meetings that they didn’t want to endure the political pain associated with supporting a clean extension.

Boehner said the votes weren’t there to do anything but a clean bill. “When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he said. “We’ve seen that before, and we’ve seen it again.”

Boehner sounded regretful when asked to explain the turn of events, saying he wished the White House was more open to deal-making. “As I said before, this is a lost opportunity,” he said. “We could have sat down and worked together in a bipartisan manner to find cuts and reform that are greater than increasing the debt limit. I am disappointed, to say the least.”

News of the GOP’s plans were welcomed by House Democrats, whose leaders first learned about the proposal Monday evening, according to senior aides.

Entering her weekly caucus meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that a clean increase of the nation’s borrowing limit is “the smart thing to do” but declined to say whether she’d be able to deliver the votes needed to ensure passage of the plan.

“This feels like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — totally upside down,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). “The majority is supposed to be the party that moves it forward because they run the ship.”

“If Republicans shirk their responsibility as the majority party in the House of Representatives, we’re ready to be responsible, we’re ready to lead,” he added.

Boehner’s allies said the move toward a clean bill was always a likely end to the standoff.

“I think he wants to get the issue taken care of,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “John Boehner is the adult in the room.”

Boehner allies added that Boehner’s chief priority late Monday, beyond avoiding default, was to avoid a GOP rebellion, which would lead to a slew of stories about Republican disarray. Boehner decided to not go through with whipping a plan that could easily fizzle, and after talking about fundraising for nearly an hour Tuesday morning, told his colleagues about his updated debt-limit plans. Some members were surprised by the announcement and the abrupt way Boehner shared his view. “I’m not sure what I heard in there,” said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) as he left the session. “I think clean is an option, but it wasn’t a lengthy discussion.”

Unease over Boehner’s latest plan, which linked a restoration of recently cut military benefits to an extension of the debt ceiling, grew late Monday during an informal whip on the House floor. The House’s right flank told the leadership that Boehner would not receive their support, with members of the conservative Republican Study Committee and tea party supporters firmly opposed.

Earlier Monday night, a contentious meeting in the Capitol basement made the leadership wary of proceeding. According to participants, several House Republicans who are leaving to run for Senate seats were particularly upset with the option that Boehner’s leadership team had presented them with. One of those Republicans was Rep. Tom Cotton (Ark.), who was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for his service in the Army infantry in Afghanistan.

Cotton, who is in a neck-and-neck race with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), is a staunch fiscal conservative who opposes raising the debt ceiling but did not want to cast a vote that would be deemed anti-military if he opposed the Boehner plan linking the military pension issue to the debt-ceiling increase.

After Cotton objected to the plan Monday, Boehner forcefully pushed back against opponents, saying failure to reach a consensus among Republicans on anything left them with nothing but bad choices. As one lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity described it, “Boehner reacted strongly several times.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a staunch conservative, told reporters after the Monday meeting that the leadership drove home the message that there were no options on the table that had come close to getting the bare majority — usually 218 votes if all members are present — and they were left to make offers that might get Democratic votes. “They couldn’t get to 218 on anything,” Salmon said.

Boehner’s allies tried valiantly between Monday night and Tuesday morning — in phone calls and whip meetings — to push uneasy colleagues toward his debt-limit plan. At Monday’s conference meeting, three of Boehner’s friends — Cole, Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) — gave upbeat speeches on his behalf, urging Republicans to stand with Boehner and back his plan. But those pleas fell on deaf ears, and the votes never appeared.

Former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.) — who was outside the GOP meeting on Tuesday — said Boehner was doing his best to govern, in spite of the challenge of directing the House GOP. “In both the House and Senate right now, we have almost evolved into a parliamentary system, and it makes things a lot harder,” he said. “But I think John understands all that. It’s complicated for him, but he’s doing what he can to navigate a difficult terrain.”

By Tuesday morning the die was cast. Republicans were nowhere near a majority on their own, and Democrats knew that, holding back their support to get a clean bill.

Inside the House GOP, Boehner’s decision to ditch his plan was not viewed as a stunning retreat by most House Republicans, many of whom are nervous about any plan to raise the debt ceiling and raising the ire of conservative activists. Instead, as members streamed out into the cold air after the breakfast, they said Boehner was simply reflecting the reality within the House Republican conference, where debt-limit debates rarely yield consensus.

Boehner’s dark humor showed as he entered the Republican National Committee for his Tuesday news conference. “Happy, happy, happy,” he mused to reporters as he strolled toward the podium. Ten minutes later, as he left the building, he began to sing softly to himself, as he stepped outside.

“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a,” he said. “Plenty of sunshine coming my way.”

Tweaking military pensions, a core element of Boehner’s Monday debt-limit strategy, still remains on the legislative agenda, even though it was decoupled from the debt limit. Earlier in the week, the Senate advanced a bill to adjust the calculation for military benefits, which were changed by last year’s bipartisan budget. On Tuesday, the House also voted on its fix for veterans but used a suspension measure to do so, rather than as part of a debt-limit package.

House leadership aides said beyond differences over strategy, one issue raised in several meetings about the debt limit was the financial markets, which have recently been rocky and watching the Capitol Hill scene with growing concern. In a Monday memo passed around by lobbyists, people close to Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said they were told that a debt-limit extension would certainly come by Wednesday, a gesture to calm Wall Street fears.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) praised the upcoming vote.

“I commend Speaker Boehner for doing the right thing.” Reid said. “We hope this commonsense approach will continue throughout the year so we can actually get some things done.”

Reid said that if the measure passes the House, the Senate will move quickly to approve the deal.

“Boehner has said he’s going to pass a clean vote. If they do that, I’m confident that we’ll move over here as quickly as it can,” he said, before cautioning: “But I put nothing past the tea party-driven Republican House.”

Wesley Lowery contributed to this article, which originally appeared in The Washington Post. 

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