Game of Votes

Can John Boehner win enough votes for his debt-ceiling plan? What if he can’t?

John Boehner and Harry Reid have been working on rival debt plans

Rep. Peter Welch is ready to declare defeat. For months, the Vermont Democrat tried to give House Speaker John Boehner some breathing room, and pledge as many Democrats as possible—114 of them—to a “clean” vote on the debt limit. That plan was left for dead long ago. The discussion has moved on to a Republican plan that would raise the debt limit while requiring votes on a balanced-budget amendment and an entitlement-reform committee, or a Democratic plan that offers nothing but cuts.

“Elections have consequences,” Welch said today, leaning on a table outside the floor of the House. “And the House Republicans have been successful in getting two plans, Boehner and Reid, that are all cuts, no revenues, and a debate about doing this all at once or doing it in two stages. The Democratic approach was a balanced approach. We lost.”

As Welch kept talking, this started to sound less and less like resignation. It sounded like a strategy. He and his pledgers are supposed to be the ones so worried about default that they’ll vote to rescue Boehner. Not this time. He supports Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan, but not Boehner’s, because Reid’s plan doesn’t touch entitlements.

Why would Welch and his fellow Democrats matter at all for Boehner? Because Republicans were spending Tuesday, as they would be spending Wednesday, putting together 217 votes to pass the bill. Because right before Welch said this, Rep. Jim Jordan had spoken on behalf of his Republican Study Committee—the guys who brought you the “Cut, Cap, and Balance Act,” which calls for much steeper cuts than the Boehner plan calls for—and said, “I am confident as of this morning that there were not 218 Republicans in support of this plan.” (Actually, because of two vacancies in the House, only 217 votes are needed to pass the bill.)

The math is simple, or as simple as the voodoo of vote-counting can ever be. There are 240 Republicans in the House. Nine of them voted against the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill on the grounds that it didn’t cut enough. That leaves 231 possible Republican votes, giving Boehner a 14-vote margin of error. Meanwhile, a total of 116 House Republicans signed the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge (229 voted for the actual bill), showing their anti-tax, anti-spend bona fides, and a healthy percentage of them are predisposed to view the Boehner plan as insufficient.

For Boehner’s plan to succeed, then, one of two things needs to happen. Either a vast majority of Republicans needs to welsh on their pledge, or some House Democrats need to bail Boehner out.

Who could those Democrats be? Good question! Five House Democrats voted for Cut, Cap, and Balance. For them, it was easy—the bill wasn’t going to pass and it put them on record for a version of the ever-popular balanced-budget amendment. This vote isn’t so easy. Only two of the five Democrats would talk about their current stance. According to Rep. Jim Matheson’s office, he was “still reviewing the language” of Boehner’s plan. According to Rep. Heath Shuler’s office, he’s simply against it.

This is why Boehner was pulling out all the stops with the base. He spent part of Tuesday selling the plan to Rush Limbaugh. “It’s the moral obligation of government to pay its debts,” he said, speaking as directly as he could to the party’s base. At the website of the National Review, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now full-time conservative economist, crunched the Boehner and Reid numbers and gave the speaker “a strong B+.” Elsewhere on the website, Rep. Paul Ryan himself weighed in to support Boehner. The Chamber of Commerce backed the plan, as did Grover Norquist. In an afternoon press conference, Sen. Mitch McConnell called Norquist’s endorsement “the gold standard” for members who were fretting that it cut too little, or that its bipartisan commission might end up recommending tax hikes.

If this works, Republicans will keep plenty of leverage over the president and the Senate’s hang-out-and-see caucus—also known as “Democrats.” The last selling point of Cut, Cap, and Balance, which remains dead, was that it passed the House. If Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor can hector their conference into passing another bill—one that violates a pledge they just took!—then their new plan gets to be the basis for a new deal. Democrats can beat it in the Senate, but it would be them, not Republicans, holding up the beer summit and risking default. Republicans really want to be able to say that, because it’s been their message for weeks, yet voters aren’t buying it.

“If there’s a crisis,” Sen. Rand Paul said on Tuesday, “the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the president.”

But what if Boehner’s plan fails in the House? The GOP’s leverage vanishes. Boehner will have failed to sell his plan to his own party. The next plan—Harry Reid’s—becomes the most viable option left. Even Nancy Pelosi supports it, which suggests that most House Democrats could support it. The Reid plan, not the Boehner plan, becomes the basis for a deal.

If that happens, Republicans might experience a sudden wave of nostalgia and regret. They didn’t trust the president in his negotiations with Congress, and made that clear. But throughout that process it looked like Barack Obama might bow to the wisdom of newspaper op-ed pages and sign on to entitlement reform. There’s no guaranteed entitlement reform in either of these plans—the fight over that is put off till next year. But there’s no fight at all if Boehner loses his vote. And he might. On Tuesday, even before the CBO’s assessment of the plan came out, conservative swing votes worried that Boehner’s plan didn’t do enough even to calm creditors.

“Look at what Moody’s and S&P actually say,” said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., a freshman and former treasurer of Maricopa County. * “It’s not about the debt ceiling. It’s about bending the debt curve. This bill, the bill we’re seeing out of the Senate—neither of them seriously bend the debt curve. Congress may be about to embrace something that doesn’t actually bend the debt curve in a legitimate fashion. Congress may be about to vote itself into a downgrade!”

The last time Boehner pulled this off, he gave his party a deal at the 11th hour, saying it contained everything they could get. And he lost 54 votes. He can lose 23 this time. He’ll have to do it after the first scoring of his bill found it wanting, after it’s tweaked, and after it’s scored again. Easy.

Correction, July 27, 2011: This article originally misidentified Rep. David Schweikert as a former state treasurer. (Return to the corrected sentence.)