The Failure of Cut, Cap, Balance

The headline is “Cut, Cap, Balance Passes House.” The roll call vote isn’t quite so cheery for conservatives.

For starters, the really vital and politically compelling component of the bill was the Balanced Budget Amendment. According to the legislation, if it was passed, Congress would need to “send the amendment to the states” – pass it with a 2/3 vote in both Houses – to unlock Tim Geithner’s power to start creating new debt. But CCB only got 234 votes. It fell 56 votes short of a 2/3 majority. By contrast, when the new Republican House passed a Balanced Budget Amendment in 1995, it was co-sponsored by a Democrat (Charlie Stenholm, who was defenestrated by the shady 2003 re-redistricting of Texas) and collected 300 votes. Far from proving momentum for a new Balanced Budget Amendment, the CCB vote suggests that there isn’t enough bipartisan support to make it happen anymore.

And then there’s the partisan breakdown. Only five Democrats backed the bill, one of whom is retiring (Dan Boren), one of whom is probably running statewide in Utah (Jim Matheson), and two of whom are being forced by redistricting to run in more Republican-leaning districts (Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre). This vote gave them a little cover without doing much for the legislation. Meanwhile, only nine Republicans voted against it – so only nine Republicans* are so opposed to any raise in the debt ceiling that they won’t even pass this bill. There are 229 other Republicans who’ve confirmed that there are some conditions under which they could raise the ceiling. Inevitably, some of them will refuse to vote for any other plan. But some of the Senate Republicans who signed CCB now say they could vote for a different plan based on the Gang of Six.

This vote provided House conservatives with a lot of cover. It also revealed the limits to their leverage.

*Michele Bachmann’s play was especially canny. She signed the CCB pledge but negotiated her own language, which included a line about repealing the Affordable Care Act. Signing the pledge gave her breathing room in the presidential race, while voting against the actual bill kept her word that she would never ever vote to raise the ceiling.