House passes Boehner’s debt ceiling plan–and Senate puts it on ice

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Chris Moody
·Political Reporter
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After a grinding week of negotiations in the House of Representatives, the chamber's GOP majority finally approved Speaker John Boehner's plan to increase the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling just ahead of the the Aug. 2 deadline for its expiration. And in short order, the Democratic-led Senate voted to table the House-passed measure in favor of a proposal advanced by Senate majority Leader Harry Reid. The Senate's maneuver now sets up a House vote over the weekend on the Reid proposal--and a fresh round of battling in Congress.

The final vote on the Boehner plan was 218 members--all Republicans--voting for the bill, with 210 against. Passage of the Boehner plan came a day after House leaders had originally intended to hold a vote on the measure--and after several days of intensive lobbying and arm twisting by Republican lawmakers.

Faced with the threat that Republican leaders wouldn't be able to secure enough votes within their caucus, the party postponed the floor vote. After several failed attempts to bargain with the remaining holdouts, Boehner on Friday morning offered a provision allowing for a future vote on a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution in return for GOP support for the bill.

It worked.

Even the most hardline Republicans left a closed-door meeting with the caucus Friday morning with the announcement they had changed their minds and would support the Speaker's plan.

The bill would raise the federal debt limit by about $900 billion in return for $917 billion in across-the-board reductions in projected government spending. The measure would force Congress to vote again on the debt limit in six months, setting the stage for yet another national debate over government spending and debt. Republicans needed 218 votes to pass.

Senate Democratic leaders vowed before the House vote that the bill would collapse in the upper chamber.

"Boehner's bill dies tonight," House Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon when it was thought the House would vote on the bill in just a matter of hours. "Forever."

Sure enough, just hours after the Republican bill cleared the House Friday, the Senate voted to table Boehner's bill with plans to move toward a debt ceiling package proposed by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

If Reid's version can't pass either, Boehner's plan would still be a tough--if not impossible--sell to the Senate and the White House. All 53 Senate Democrats signed a letter this week vowing to vote against Boehner's plan.

"A short-term extension like the one in your bill would put America at risk, along with every family and business in it," the letter read. "We now have only five days left to act. The entire world is watching Congress. We need to do the right thing to solve this problem. We must work together to avoid a default the responsible way—not in a way that will do America more harm than good."

The Senate could, however, amend the House bill and send it back to the House. Likely changes would include a reduction in spending and provide enough to raise the debt ceiling for more than a year.

Reid's plan to raise the debt ceiling would cut billions more than Boehner's proposal, and free up enough money for the government to continue paying its debts until after the November 2012 election. That, too, would require House approval.

Earlier this week, President Obama stopped short of promising to veto Boehner's bill if it survives the Senate, but sent a message to Congress Tuesday promising that, "senior advisers would recommend that he veto this bill."

The White House ramped up its rhetorical offensive on Friday when President Obama said that Boehner's plan "has no chance of becoming law."

Friday's House vote was a culmination of days of uncertainty over whether Boehner could secure support from his own caucus. After spending much of Thursday meeting personally with House Republicans, GOP leaders still could not say with confidence that they had the votes for a scheduled 6 p.m. vote. It was postponed till later in the evening. At least 22 House Republicans confirmed they would not support the speaker and four said they were "leaning" against it. (Just 25 Republican "nay" votes would have sunk the bill.)

That was too close for comfort for Republican leaders, who postponed the vote yet again. Around 10:30 p.m. Thursday night, GOP lawmakers announced they were calling it quits for the night and would pick the bill back up in the morning.

The entire 11th-hour episode has proven to be a test for Boehner, who took severe hits from the conservative wing of his party for seeking a compromise with Democrats. Conservatives were most displeased that Boehner's proposal omitted a key spending-hawk provision calling for a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the federal budget each year--but the deal to launch a separate bill on the balanced budget amendment allayed most of Bohener's critics on the right. While Republican leaders were busy corralling every possible vote, major conservative grassroots organizations blasted messages to their member lists urging them to tell members of Congress to vote against the Republican plan.

The Republican Study Committee--the chamber's largest conservative caucus, with more than 175 members--was actively working to undermine the Republican plan. Committee executive director Paul Teller, a staffer, had reportedly sent letters to conservative groups telling them to keep the pressure on House members to vote against Boehner's proposal. When the aide's actions were outed at a closed-door meeting with Republicans, members shouted "fire him, fire him!" according to an account in Politico.

The chaos on Capitol Hill, could, however be just the prelude of drama to come with the approach of Aug. 2--the date at which Treasury officials say the United States would begin defaulting on debt obligations. With no plan in sight that both sides can agree on, it is likely that whatever solution emerges from Washington will not emerge until the final moments.