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The Hill (Washington, DC)

GOP Postpones Debt Vote on Boehner Debt Ceiling Measure


House Republican leaders have postponed indefinitely a vote on Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) debt limit bill after they could not persuade enough Republicans to support the measure. (photo: AFP)

House Republican leaders have postponed indefinitely a vote on Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) debt limit bill after they could not persuade enough Republicans to support the measure.

"No vote tonight," the third-ranking House Republican, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), told reporters after leaving Boehner's office shortly before 10:30 p.m. The move throws into upheaval the desperate push in Washington to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit to avert a national default on Aug. 2.

The House Rules Committee convened at 11 p.m. to pass a rule allowing the GOP to revise and vote on the bill Friday.

“As of right now, it's apparent that we don't have the votes for a number of reasons,” the Rules Committee chairman, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), said at the outset of the often-testy emergency hearing.

The committee's action allows Republicans to continue reworking the bill through Aug. 2 without returning it to the committee.

The GOP leadership scheduled a meeting of the full conference Friday morning.

“We will discuss various options for going forward, but our objectives remain the same," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told reporters after exiting Boehner's office, shortly after the leadership scrapped the vote.

Pence did not identify any particular issue that was keeping members from backing the package. "Each legislator has, in some respects, different concerns," he said. When asked if Republicans can get a package approved, Pence replied, "I'm remain optimistic that we'll find a way forward."

House Republican leaders are extremely frustrated with members of their conference.

There is a particular irritation at Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) for publicly opposing the House bill.

A House GOP member, speaking on background, said that opposition has played a major role in the resistance from Republican members of the South Carolina delegation.

The lawmaker added that redistricting and the fear of Tea Party challenges are significantly impeding the whipping operation.

Republicans announced the postponement after a harried day and evening of arm-twisting in which they worked to convince reluctant lawmakers to support Boehner's measure to raise the debt ceiling by $900 billion and cut deficits by $917 billion over the next decade.

The postponed came more than four hours after Republicans had initially scheduled the vote. Throughout the afternoon and evening, GOP lawmakers shuttled in and out of leadership offices, but not enough moved off their opposition for Boehner to take the bill to the floor.

House Democrats have vowed to oppose the bill en masse, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Hill shortly after 9 p.m. that her party was holding firm in its opposition as Boehner tried to wrangle a majority out of his own membership.

She seized on the postponement of the vote to call on GOP leaders to return to negotiations with Democrats. “Hopefully, now the Republicans will come back to the table to negotiate a bipartisan, balanced agreement that is overwhelmingly supported by the American people,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Republicans have taken us to the brink of economic chaos. The delay must end now so we can focus on the American people’s top priority: creating jobs and growing the economy.”

The bill’s failure would represent a stunning embarrassment for Boehner, who has argued to his members that the proposal is the party’s best chance to “hold the president’s feet to the fire” and force real spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a bloc of united Senate Democrats promised to defeat the measure as soon as it passed, hoping to force Boehner back to the bargaining table to forge a compromise.

The White House has threatened a presidential veto of Boehner’s bill because it would only authorize an increase in the debt ceiling through about February, and not through 2012. The Boehner bill would condition a subsequent increase in borrowing authority on congressional enactment of a $1.8 trillion deficit reduction package and votes in both the House and Senate on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Lawmakers described Boehner and other Republican leaders as “respectful” in their pleas for support, but several emerged from private meetings saying they would not change their votes. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a no vote, said he was pleasantly surprised GOP leaders weren't “twisting and ripping arms off” but that he couldn’t vote to raise the debt limit without fundamental changes to the legislation.

Boehner and his lieutenants appeared to be focusing on a range of lawmakers rather than merely a few holdouts. Over the course of the day, they called in several conservatives who had been resolutely opposed to the Speaker’s bill from the start.

“I’m still a bloody and beaten no,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) told reporters after a meeting in Boehner’s office Thursday evening. Earlier in the day, he likened the frenzied whip effort to the hours leading up to the 2008 vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“It feels like TARP did,” Gohmert said after a morning conference meeting. “The pressure from our leadership to cave and vote for TARP feels very similar to the pressure right now.”

The arm-twisting in itself was a departure for Boehner, who has championed the idea that the House would “work its will” and that legislation would not be dictated from the Speaker’s office. The newest members found themselves in unfamiliar territory as they paraded into leadership offices. When freshman Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) arrived at Boehner’s suite, he had to ask the reporters standing outside for directions to Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office upstairs.

While conservatives pushed for deeper spending cuts and a stronger balanced budget amendment, another obstacle for Republican leaders became clear: After banning earmarks at the outset of the 112th Congress, they have few possible sweeteners to offer to reluctant swing votes. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a long-time earmark foe who had leaned against the Boehner bill, said it was “so refreshing” to have a debate with the pork-barrel projects off the table. He joked that it would have cost the party $20 billion if earmarks had been in the mix.

Several Republicans said without any Senate action on the debt ceiling, the party was essentially compromising with itself. Rep. Tim Scott (R-Ga.), a member of the leadership team opposing the bill, cited his experience as an insurance executive in arguing the GOP should not have moved so quickly off the “cut, cap and balance” bill it passed last week, which was also deemed dead on arrival in the Senate. “Once you’ve made your offer, you just stay quiet,” Scott said.

Other lawmakers pointed to $17 billion in appropriations for Pell Grants included in the bill. “I really don’t understand why we’re increasing spending in a bill supposed to be cutting spending,” said Rep. Andy Harris, a freshman Republican from Maryland. “It was negotiated without the input of a lot of members.”

But Scott said Pell Grants were not the issue that kept the measure from passing.

As the House was voting on a separate appropriations bill Thursday afternoon, Boehner shuttled a trio of undecided Republicans — Reps. Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.), Tom McClintock (Calif.) and Bill Posey (Fla.) — into an office off the House floor for private meetings. Fleischmann subsequently said he will vote yes.

As Posey was leaving, Boehner opened the office door and gave him an enthusiastic handshake in view of a gaggle of reporters watching.

Yet by the end of the night, Boehner was still short on votes.

Leaving the Speaker's office, Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) sounded a note of frustration with some in the caucus.

"I was ready to vote for it, I was told we were going to vote tonight," Long said. "There's just a group of 'em who are convinced they can get more out of the deal."

Asked if he expected a vote Friday, Long said, "I'm done guessing."

Russell Berman, Erik Wasson, Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder, Mike Lillis, Molly K. Hooper, Bob Cusack, Elise Viebeck, Alexander Bolton and Cristina Marcos contributed reporting.

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