The Debt Ceiling Is Coming!

Can John Boehner, Paul Ryan, or someone do anything about it?

Speaker Boehner/Ryan need to find the votes to pass a “clean” debt ceiling bill next week

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It’s finally clear why Rep. Paul Ryan changed his mind and chose to run for speaker. He wasn’t interested in the fundraising, traveling, or the time away from his kids. He also wasn’t much interested in having to twist the arms of characters like Reps. Louie Gohmert and Steve King late into the night. What changed his mind, surely, was a glance at the calendar: Ryan will only have to serve as speaker for a handful of days before the apocalypse will arrive and our institutions will cease to exist.

The debt ceiling deadline has been moved up two days to Nov. 3, according to the most recent estimate from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. That is 11 days from now and considerably fewer legislative days. So far the House hasn’t moved a bill, and neither has the Senate.

There’s another problem emerging in the House of Representatives, too, if you can believe it: The votes supposedly aren’t there. And we don’t just mean that a majority of Republicans aren’t willing to raise the debt ceiling. That’s never the case. Instead, it’s that even if Speaker Boehner/Ryan were to call up a “clean” debt ceiling increase with no conditions attached, and even if such a bill got unanimous Democratic support, there still wouldn’t be enough Republicans to vote for it.

Or so they say.

Buried relatively deeply on Politico’s front page, beneath stories about Benghazi and the Jeb Bush campaign’s pay cuts, is a piece about how we are a handful of legislative days from surpassing our statutory borrowing limit and no one is doing anything. Earlier this week the plan was to pass a stringent Republican Study Committee–backed bill that would have frozen all new regulations, among other deliciously fantastical conservative goodies. But GOP leaders have backed away because even that did not have enough support among Republicans.

Since the conservative debt ceiling bill was never going anywhere in the Senate and apparently isn’t going anywhere in the House either, can we just skip to the part where Boehner passes a clean bill with mostly Democratic votes? Nope. “Boehner, McCarthy and other GOP leaders are refusing at this point to move ahead with a ‘clean’ debt ceiling bill insisted on by President Barack Obama,” Politico reports. “Senior leadership aides said they couldn’t find the 30 Republican votes needed to join with all 188 Democrats to pass that proposal—a bleak indication of the current state of play.”

The math problem at hand is a fitting epitaph for the Boehner era: The Republican pickups in the 2014 election have made it harder for Boehner to do his job. As the Atlantic’s Russell Berman explains, “Because Republicans expanded their majority last year, there are fewer Democrats in the House, and several more GOP lawmakers would need to vote yes for the bill to pass.” The Republican speaker’s job was a hell of a lot easier when he didn’t have to deal with quite so many Republicans.

But let’s not take Boehner and company’s complaints about how they simply don’t have the votes as the final word. He must find the votes.

Congress last passed a “clean” debt ceiling increase in early 2014 with few votes to spare, 221 to 201. Democrats provided 193 of those votes, Republicans 28—and a third of those Republican members are no longer in Congress. Now the House has 188 Democratic members. If all of them vote for the clean increase this time, 30 of the 247 Republican members—meaning the 18 members who voted for it last time plus 12 new ones—must join in on the fun. (That’s assuming everyone shows up. In the 2014 hike, 10 members did not cast a ballot, so only 212 votes were needed to pass it. Perhaps some folks would like to take the day off again? )

Boehner says that he doesn’t have the 30 votes. “Not having the votes,” however, doesn’t mean that Boehner can’t go out there and get them. That only 28 Republicans voted for the increase last year did not mean that the maximum number of willing Republicans was 28. More likely, the vote count crossed the threshold for passage and remaining members took their free “no” vote.

That’s why Democrats aren’t sweating it too much just yet. “Crocodile tears,” a senior Democratic Senate aide tells Slate about Boehner’s complaint that he doesn’t have the votes for a clean bill. “They’ll find the votes. The math on 28 minus 9—or whatever it is—is based on a flawed premise. There were only 28 votes last time because there only needed to be 28 votes—once the threshold was reached, they let people go who were in reserve.”

Let’s hope that’s true, and that Boehner is able to pass the “clean” bill next week as his last act of responsible leadership. If he doesn’t, well, maybe the apocalypse won’t be as bad as they say it is.