For weeks, political insiders have been reassuring themselves and others that Congress would eventually resolve the debt ceiling issue—they just weren't sure how. But with the Treasury Department's August 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling looming, and with events becoming more and more unpredictable, that assertion is looking less like a statement of fact than a political prayer. After GOP leaders delayed a scheduled vote on Speaker John Boehner's debt ceiling bill Thursday night, the way forward is even more uncertain.
It was perhaps the most important vote of Boehner's career, an important test of his leadership, and for now he has an embarrassing incomplete. Hours of vote wrangling in Boehner's office failed to close the deal. Staffers carted in boxes of pizza as the night went on, and reluctant lawmakers shuffled in and out of Boehner's office, as well as the office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. Without any Democratic support, Boehner needed votes from conservative members who have said they'll only vote for a debt ceiling increase if it's tied to a balanced budget amendment. Throughout the evening, Republican staffers repeated the assertion that, sooner or later, Boehner would get the votes. But he didn't. Now the GOP leaders will likely be forced to revise the legislation, which would be the second time the speaker would have to take a red marker to it, which would have immediately cut $900 billion from the national debt over 10 years and promised further cuts later. Earlier, Boehner revised the bill after the Congressional Budget Office claimed it didn't deliver the promised savings.
And to top it all off, it's unclear precisely what kind of difference passing the bill would have made anyway.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to hold a vote on the bill immediately if it passed the House, and with all 53 Democrats and even some Republicans aligned against it, the proposal had no chance of passage. Boehner's plan certainly wasn't meaningless—had it passed, it would have been the only plan passed by either chamber which—not being very different from Reid's plan—could plausibly serve as the basis for a final compromise. In that case, it would likely would have pushed any final compromise deal closer to the GOP's view of a short-term plan.
But, with little chance of the Boehner plan becoming law, skeptical Republicans saw little reason to stick their necks out for it. "Why are we negotiating with ourselves?" asked Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, who has said he would vote no on the bill.
With the bill's status uncertain, no one knows how this will play out. The bill's failure, so far, has bolstered the Democrats' argument that Tea Party Republicans are too dead-set against the debt ceiling increase to play ball, meaning that in order to pass something, Boehner will need Democratic votes. Reid will push for his bill, which cuts $2.7 trillion over 10 years and raises the debt ceiling past 2013. The Reid proposal, which Boehner had denounced as a "gimmick," would face a tough audience in the House, from Republicans who feel that many of the cuts, including those from a draw-down in Afghanistan and Iraq., are superficial, and from Democrats who resent that the package includes nothing to boost revenue. Reid promised to work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to present a bill acceptable to Republicans, but it's not clear that a humbled Boehner would play along, or that he'd even be able to deliver the votes if he did.
Many political observers have watched the debt ceiling drama play out with a jaded eye, assuming that much of the drama is staged theatrics to help ease the eventual passage of a compromise. Thursday night's debacle was different. It was a rare, possibly career-threatening mis-step from a House Speaker who has, in the past, known exactly how to play his cards. It's no secret that the House Republican caucus is divided between old Washington pros and passionate newly elected conservatives, but Boehner has known how to play that divide to his advantage, using it to push for better deals from the White House while holding his party together. Now the caucus has fallen apart, but everyone in Washington is waiting to see what the damage will be.