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Republican debt plan struggles in House

Speaker John Boehner and other party leaders push into overdrive to try to rescue the measure, even as an independent analysis challenges its figures.

July 27, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • House Speaker John Boehner, right, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) listen to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
House Speaker John Boehner, right, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) listen… (Carolyn Kaster, AP )

Reporting from Washington — A go-it-alone House Republican plan to raise the nation's debt ceiling teetered on the edge of failure late Tuesday as leaders struggled to rally reluctant lawmakers and to make last-minute changes to curry conservative support.

Leaders postponed a planned Wednesday vote in the House, an indication of the problems besetting the effort. Even if the plan passes this week, it would face an uncertain fate in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and White House officials said they would recommend President Obama veto it.

The uphill task, led by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), grew more difficult when an independent analysis posed a new challenge to the figures used in the plan, saying its projected savings would be less than initially estimated.

Boehner's challenge arrived at a pivotal moment for both the Republican Party and the country, after months of political deadlock. Just days remain before the federal government hits the $14.3-trillion limit on how much it can borrow, after which it could be unable to pay all of its bills and obligations.

In proposing their own plan, House Republicans aimed to demonstrate that they could lead the nation away from the brink of economic disaster. But on Tuesday, they largely showed off the deep divisions that have dogged the GOP and Boehner's leadership all year.

GOP leaders pushed into overdrive to try to rescue the measure, using arguments, empathy, sweeteners and even a tough-guy movie clip — yes, a movie clip — to rally support.

To push a plan through the House, Boehner must amass 217 votes. There are 240 Republicans in the House, and few, if any, Democrats are expected to support his plan. So Boehner can afford to lose no more than about 23 members of his party — a difficult task given the opposition of many conservatives to any increase in the nation's debt limit under any circumstances.

Boehner's plan would require that the president go to Congress twice over the next year for authority to raise the debt limit. A competing plan, pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would provide for a debt ceiling increase to last through 2012, as the White House prefers.

Boehner's plan also would require that the House and Senate vote in the future on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

One by one Tuesday, reluctant rank-and-file House Republicans wrestled with their decisions and the divide in the party at large. Influential business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged lawmakers to vote for the plan, while pivotal conservative groups warned against it.

"When there is this type of pressure, I do what I was taught to do: I get on my knees and I ask for some understanding and some leadership," said Rep. Jeffrey Landry, a freshman Republican from Louisiana who came to Washington without experience in elective office. He was undecided, but very skeptical.

Boehner and his leadership team relied on good-cop, bad-cop approaches to push and pull lawmakers into line, in a tense environment that one GOP senator said was "changing every hour."

In many ways, this was a moment for the history books: the machinery of Washington at work in a showcase of the congressional process. At a closed-door meeting of Republicans, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, said it was time to quit "whining" and vote.

Seeking to inspire lawmakers, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the party whip, turned to Hollywood. He showed rank-and-file lawmakers a scene from the heist drama "The Town." In the clip, Ben Affleck's character tells his accomplice he needs his help and needs it now — no questions asked.

The loyal buddy seizes the moment by responding: "Whose car we gonna take?"

The moral of the story had the intended sway. Rep. Allen West, a "tea party"-aligned freshman from Florida who has been known to buck the leadership, gave an impassioned speech in support of the plan.

West concluded: "I will drive the car."

But others were turned off by the hard sell coming from leadership — and from the White House. Obama took House Republicans to task, particularly the sizable freshman class that has been most resistant to raising the debt ceiling, in a prime-time speech Monday night.

Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a former prosecutor, said he and his peers are not the caricatures Obama makes them out to be, but instead are fiscal hawks who want to make a "trans-generational" impact on debts and deficits.

"We're not a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing Neanderthals," he said.

With a dozen or more Republicans up in the air, one GOP aide said the office had two press releases at the ready: one if the boss announced he was voting yes, another for a no vote.

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