House Republican leaders delayed until at least Friday a white-knuckle vote on legislation designed to ease the nation’s debt crisis, after hours of scrambling in vain to lock down the last votes needed for passage.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters shortly before 10:30 p.m. that there would be no vote Thursday night on the bill, which would increase the federal debt limit in two stages in exchange for major spending cuts.
The vote had been scheduled for around 6 p.m. Thursday, but as that hour neared, GOP leaders realized they didn’t have the 217 votes needed to send the measure on to the Senate.
So the House suddenly took up a series of non-controversial measures, leaving befuddled lawmakers debating whether to rename a post office in Hawaii before finally going into recess for an indefinite time.
In the wake of the postponement, several Republicans from South Carolina were brought into Speaker John A. Boehner’s suite on the second floor of the Capitol. But leaders made no headway with them. Two lawmakers — Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney — left the office and went into a nearby chapel, telling reporters they were praying over the matter and for their leadership.
Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), a liaison to leadership for the freshmen class, said he was still opposed to the legislation. He added that leaders have told him they are on the brink of securing the 217 votes needed, but still just short.
“I hear three votes, four votes, it’s very close. They’re only a handful away,” he said.
Scott then joined Duncan and Mulvaney in the chapel. About 45 minutes later, they emerged and headed downstairs to the first-floor offices of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), where Boehner,Cantor and McCarthy were waiting.
Other Republicans who had gathered there included Reps. Michael Burgess (Tex.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Dan Lungren (Calif.), Tom Price (Ga.) and Austin Scott (Ga.).
Burgess told reporters he was already a confirmed “yes” vote, but he attended the get-together “to figure out what's going on, the same as you guys.”
Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy departed after an hour, leaving the rank-and-file members to discuss the bill among themselves.
Another of the congressmen in the meeting, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), told reporters that the whip operation currently underway was without the horse-trading that marks most congressional nail-biters — a change due to new rules adopted by the 112th Congress.
“It is the most refreshing thing in the world to see what’s going on in there,” Flake said. “This kind of negotiation a couple years ago would have cost about 20 billion dollars.”
“What does it cost now?” a reporter asked.
“Now, it’s a couple of pizzas and you’re there,” he joked. “Seriously, that has been the most refreshing part of this whole thing. Nobody’s kids who’re running for office were threatened or anything. Nothing. Nothing. It’s just a tough vote; these are big decisions.”
The flurry of activity followed a morning closed-door caucus meeting in which Boehner acknowledged that he did not yet have the needed votes and an afternoon when Republican leaders publicly predicted the legislation would pass the House and move on to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed again to thwart the bill.
“We’re going to pass a very responsible answer to this crisis,” Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters. “And our solution was put together by the bipartisan leaders here in Congress. There is no reason for them to say no. It’s time for somebody in this town to say yes.”
The speaker, however, declined to guarantee victory, sidestepping a question about how many votes he had by deferring to his top vote-counting lieutenant, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “This conference has moved a great deal in a short amount of time,” McCarthy said.
“Republicans cannot get the short-term Band-Aid they will vote on in the House today,” Reid declared in a Thursday morning floor speech. “It will not get one Democratic vote in the Senate. . . The economy needs more certainty than the speaker’s proposal would provide.”
The White House also lashed out Thursday against Boehner’s bill, calling it a “political act” that guarantees another “three-ring circus” over the debt limit in a matter of months.
But Boehner plowed ahead, telling reporters Thursday afternoon that, after the House vote later in the day, “the United States Senate will have no more excuses for inaction.” He and other Republican leaders argued that their bill represents “compromise” and said it resulted from “a bipartisan negotiated agreement.”
McCarthy, the third-ranking House Republican, declared: “The momentum is moving in our direction.”
The optimistic remarks from Republican leaders came after
In a final stage of brinksmanship, Boehner is now gambling that he can pass his bill and that Reid will blink under the threat of a potentially calamitous government default that could begin next week.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged his strong support for the Boehner bill, and his aides strenuously denied that he was working to forge a compromise with Democrats. But McConnell met Wednesday afternoon with Boehner and spoke by phone with Vice President Biden. Meanwhile, discussions intensified on a short-term extension of the debt limit to give lawmakers more time to resolve their differences.
McConnell previously has worked with Reid to set up a fallback plan should Boehner fail in the House. However, believing that Boehner can prevail, McConnell has privately signaled to Reid and the White House that he supports the Boehner legislation and would hold back his Senate 47 Republicans from supporting Reid’s counterproposal.
In a speech that followed Reid’s on Thursday morning, McConnell accused Democrats of supporting all the outlines of the Boehner legislation except for a second vote to lift the federal debt ceiling early next year.
“It doesn’t allow the president to avoid another national debate about spending and debt until after the next presidential election,” McConnell said. “This assurance is the only thing the president and Senate Democrats are holding out for right now.”
With investors appearing increasingly anxious about whether Washington will meet an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the federal debt ceiling, the stock market ticked slightly downward Thursday. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index dropped 0.32 percent.
Early Thursday, chief executives of some of the largest U.S. financial companies — including Brian Moynihan from Bank of America, James Dimon from JP Morgan Chase and John R. Strangfeld of Prudential — wrote a letter to President Obama and members of Congress urging them to agree on a deal this week.
“The consequences of inaction — for our economy, the already struggling job market, the financial circumstances of American businesses and families, and for America’s global economic leadership — would be very grave,” they wrote.
Democrats highlighted the concerns of market experts, releasing a video Thursday in which several warned that Boehner’s plan could prolong the feuding over the debt ceiling and prompt credit-rating agencies to downgrade the nation’s AAA credit rating.
In a White House news briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said, “There is no question that this bill is a political act that has no life beyond its current existence in the House.” He added, “It ain’t going anywhere in the United States Senate.”
Carney said that “any proposal that puts us through this three-ring circus again in a short period of time” will further damage the economy, increasing the “uncertainty” that Republicans often point to as a dampener on economic growth.
He also blasted what he said was the desire of some House Republicans to “stick the president with default,” calling such comments “really incredibly juvenile.” He insisted that Obama’s rejection of any measure that raises the debt ceiling for only a few months at a time is based on economics rather than politics. “It’s incredibly bad for the economy to have this kind of circus go on in Washington,” Carney said.
If the Boehner legislation survives Thursday’s roll call, it will move across to the Senate, where Democrats have vowed to table it. Reid then hopes to engage in negotiations with McConnell, Boehner and the White House to see if there can be some compromise reached to amend the Boehner plan and then approve it this weekend in the Senate. That would set up a final House vote early next week.
If McConnell and Senate Republicans balk at any changes in the Boehner bill, each side is then guessing that the other will fold first. Democrats would accuse Republicans of causing the default by filibustering Reid’s bill, while Republicans would blame Senate Democrats for forcing the default by refusing to accept the Boehner bill.
If Boehner’s bill fails in the Thursday vote, Democrats say, Reid’s current proposal would ultimately prevail, perhaps with some revisions designed to win bipartisan support.
“All eyes are on the House,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a friend of Boehner’s and a former White House budget director who has been involved in the talks.
Washington Post staff writers Felicia Sonmez, William Branigin and Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.