House GOP debt vote in doubt
By Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Russell Berman - 10/15/13 06:15 PM ET
House Republicans moved Tuesday to vote on a new plan to end the government shutdown and lift the debt ceiling, but it was not clear if they could muster the support in their conference.
GOP leaders want to bring their measure to the floor for a vote Tuesday night, but the House Rules Committee postponed a 5:40 p.m. meeting to consider the rule for the measure, a sign GOP leaders don't have the votes for it to pass.
Chairman Pete Sessions announced that the meeting was postponed to give members more time to call their districts and consider the bill. They will be given an hour's notice when the meeting is rescheduled.
The measure would fund the government through Dec. 15 and raise the debt ceiling to Feb. 7, but conservatives all day have raised various objections to it and forced their leaders to make modifications.
By passing the measure, House GOP leaders would gain a bit more leverage in final-hour talks with Senate Democrats over raising the debt ceiling ahead of a Thursday deadline, after which the Treasury Department has warned of a possible default.
“The House will vote tonight to reopen the government and avoid default,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“After listening to members at conference this morning, House Republican Leaders will bring a plan to the floor which will end the ObamaCare subsidies for elected officials and staff in Washington, DC, and pressure Senate Democrats to accept more sensible dates for the [continuing resolution] and the debt limit,” he said.
To try to win over their members, GOP leaders added to a provision stripping employer contributions lawmakers get for health insurance under ObamaCare so that it also applies to staff.
They also set up an earlier deadline for funding the government. An emerging Senate deal would have funded the government past the Christmas holidays to January 15, but the House GOP plan would end funding just in time for the holidays.
Fitch Ratings on Tuesday evening announced it was putting the U.S. on an increased risk of a default and the nation’s AAA rating on a negative watch.
Two other changes seemed designed to make the bill more appealing to Democrats.
Republicans dropped a proposal to delay a medical device tax that has opponents in both parties, and they also dropped a demand that the Health and Human Services Department employ stricter income verification for recipients of ObamaCare subsidies.
Boehner’s moves sidelined the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suspended their recent talks, as the Senate GOP sought to give Boehner more maneuvering room.
The White House and Senate Democrats quickly charged that the newest House GOP plan was a nonstarter.
“We believe after Boehner finishes his antics we can very well continue to move along well,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber.
Democrats also fumed over the House’s proposal to bar the Treasury Department from deploying “extraordinary measures” to buy more time under its borrowing cap.
By moving money around, the Treasury can sometimes buy months of extra time under the borrowing cap, but some Republicans have complained that the measures allow the administration to be unclear on exactly how long Congress can debate a debt-limit boost before a damaging default.
The Treasury contends it is impossible to predict the exact day the government would default, but the House plan would ensure the department could not continue paying bills on time beyond Feb. 7.
Treasury has said it would only have $30 billion left on Oct. 17, and that it does not have the ability to prioritize payments.
International leaders and the business community are worried about a possible U.S. default as Treasury struggles to pay U.S. bond holders while issuing checks to the military, Social Security beneficiaries and others.
Outside experts believe the government could be in danger of a default anytime between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1.
Investors on Tuesday showed tepid interest in a weekly offering of Treasury bonds Tuesday amid growing concern about the reliability of U.S. debt.
Citigroup reportedly told analysts during an earnings calls Tuesday that it was trimming its holdings in Treasury debt that were due to mature before the end of the month.
The stock market fluctuated with the day's events in DC, but equities have yet to show any dramatic swings that many in Washington thought would serve as the impetus for action. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day down just 135 points.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the freezing of talks in the Senate is meant to help Boehner.
“I think every member of the Republican Conference wants to try to reach out to the House members and say, 'What can we do to help John Boehner?' ” he said. “This is sort of an all hands on deck approach to help the Speaker go on offense for the party and the country. Whether we get there, I don’t know.”
Yet divisions in the House GOP conference remain troublesome, with members expressing doubts Boehner could pull together the votes for his original plan if Democrats don’t go along with him.
After a meeting in Boehner's office Tuesday afternoon, centrist GOP Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), said it was clear to him the Speaker's plan did not have the votes to pass.
“My best estimate is the answer to that is no, not the way they presented it this morning,” he said. “This is a very fluid situation right now. I don't know who is going to go first, the House or the Senate.”
Top GOP senators added Tuesday that giving Boehner some breathing room could help them, both politically and procedurally, even as they acknowledged that Republican leaders have historically had a difficult time getting major fiscal measures through the House.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of GOP leadership, said that the House acting first would give senators – like Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) – fewer opportunities to slow efforts to pass a deal.
Both Cruz and Lee skipped Tuesday’s conference-wide meeting, with a Lee spokesman saying that the Utah Republican doesn’t always attend. A spokeswoman for Cruz said that the Texas senator had a “previous commitment that went long.”
Thune also suggested that Republicans think their leverage would be stronger if Boehner could muscle a plan through the House.
“If they can find the 218, and we hope they can, we want to give them the opportunity to do that,” the South Dakota Republican said.
But some senior Republicans remained frustrated that conservatives had led them into the current fight, with what they saw as little chance to roll back the president’s healthcare law.
“I’m frustrated at everything. This is just the latest iteration of my frustration,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Really, this is terrible.”