No Vote Tonight: Boehner’s Grip Slips.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The signs were there all day, if reporters wanted to hear them. When we asked – and oh, we asked – if Republicans would get the 217 votes they needed to move forward on John Boehner’s two-stage debt plan, we were never told “yes.” We were told that the votes weren’t there yet, but they would be. When would they be? We’d see. For most of the day, we were expecting a vote at some point between 5:45 and 6:30. And then, the vote was delayed.

The Republican dilemma quickly revealed itself. In other situations where a majority party needed to grind out a few final votes, it called on members who agreed with the concept of legislation but quibbled with the text. When Harry Reid needed to get to 60 votes for the health care law, he knew Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson wanted to hand the president a victory, and wanted to expand health care coverage, but had a couple of concessions in mind. When Nancy Pelosi needed the final votes for the Senate’s health care bill, she could appeal to progressives like Dennis Kucinich and pro-life liberals like Bart Stupak, because they wanted a health care bill, too.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor couldn’t sell their Republicans in the same way. Their diehards never wanted to raise the debt limit. They had supported a strict, doomed version of a debt ceiling deal, Cut, Cap, and Balance, which did that, but even then, they weren’t really comfortable with the concept of what they were doing. They did not want to raise the debt limit. Their constituents were uncomfortable with the idea, at first. And now they were being asked to raise the limit, without the conditions they liked, because… why? Because they were told that failing to do so would give Barack Obama all the leverage in the debt fight. That was too clever by half for some Republicans. More than 24 Republicans, it seemed.

Tonight, reporters stalked outside the offices of Boehner and Cantor as members walked in and out for meetings. This wasn’t like health care, or even the continuing resolution. We were watching diehard conservatives, who had never wanted to raise the debt limit, and who had never done so in their careers, being begged for votes. As the night dragged on, the visitors did not look like the sort who could cave on big, existential votes. Louie Gohmert, one of the diehards who believes that Tim Geithner is lying about the threat of default, was dragged in. Tim Scott, the co-president of the freshman class, was dragged in; he walked out nonplussed, walked past reporters, and took out his iPod earbuds to confirm he was a “no.” Roscoe Bartlett, an octogeniaran, who’s not usually counted on for tough votes, entered the hot room telling reporters he didn’t want to choose between “bad and really bad.” The farce peaked when Gohmert joined freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., for a prayer session in the House’s chapel. It can’t be good when members of Congress are literally asking for salvation.

On one level, the vote was a charade, because the Senate had pledged to defeat it if it passed. But raw politics mattered, and Republicans made sure that they lost the politics. Tonight, after markets closed, they had a chance to prove that they were ready to pass two debt ceiling limits – two of them! – with deep cuts and back-loaded reforms. That was the message today. Republicans would pass a bill, and define the choice between their serious conservative option, a gimmicky Reid option, and default. But they couldn’t do it. They have to go to conference tomorrow at 10 a.m. reading stories like this:

Rising signs of strain emerged across financial markets on Thursday as investors pulled out billions of cash out of money-market funds, in turn driving the funds to rein in lending in short-term markets.

Republicans will be absorbing the blame for whatever happens in the markets tomorrow – they’ve been emboldened by what they saw as mild corrections on Monday and the rest of the week. The fact that they’ll take this blame is a real victory for Democrats. Five conservative Blue Dogs had voted for Cut, Cap, and Balance, but it was clear today that Democrats were denying any votes for the Boehner Plan. Nancy Pelosi was pitching a perfect game, with the help (this is from NBC’s Luke Russert) of Heath Shuler, a conservative who was whipping his colleagues. The Democrats are partly responsible for the impasse tonight, but they will escape most blame as Republicans look for tweaks – for the second time! – to make the bill acceptable to their members.

John Boehner’s team had succeeded over several days in turning a number of critics and Tea Party Republicans into compromisers. They just didn’t do enough of it. In the very short term, Boehner lost.