Woes mount for GOP debt plan

Vote delayed as members balk, savings fall short

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON - House Speaker John Boehner’s latest plan to avoid a default on the national debt ran into trouble, causing him last night to delay the vote planned for today while he rewrites the legislation.

Boehner encountered strong resistance from within his own caucus all day yesterday, as many conservative Republicans insisted his bill on the government’s debt ceiling did not cut deeply enough into federal programs. They vowed to oppose the legislation when it comes up for a vote, now possibly tomorrow. Also, President Obama threatened to veto Boehner’s measure, further diminishing its prospects.

Adding to Boehner’s problems was a report by congressional analysts saying his plan would create $850 billion in savings, not the $1.2 trillion he had projected.

At the end of another chaotic day of negotiations and fiery statements, the path forward remained as complicated - if not more so - as when Boehner broke off bipartisan talks with Obama last week.

Democrats hoped to begin debate Friday on a Senate bill that, if it picks up any GOP support in the chamber, could provide a resolution to the standoff.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, yesterday delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in which he decried the state of negotiations.

“This is embarrassing for the nation!’’ he said. “It’s embarrassing for the United States of America to be having such a dysfunctional display for everybody in the world to see, that we who run around the world promoting democracy are unable to make our own democracy work right here at home.’’

He also accused House Republicans of trying to “send a dramatic, stupid message of incompetence to the world.’’

Without an increase in the debt ceiling, the federal government is projected to run out of money on Aug. 2, and would face default on some of its financial obligations.

Congress has been mired in a stalemate over how to proceed with what normally has been a routine vote to raise the borrowing limits, and now is tied up with broader plans to tackle the nation’s growing deficit.

The divisions in the Republican Party broke wide open over the House bill, which called for a two-step approach that would cut spending by $1.2 trillion and allow the government to keep borrowing money for another seven or eight months.

In a significant setback, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last night said the plan would actually generate about $850 billion in spending cuts - not the $1.2 trillion cited by Boehner. The office is charged by Congress with coming up with independent estimates on legislation involving economic and budgetary issues.

A Boehner spokesman said aides last night were looking at options to rewrite the legislation to achieve his savings target.

The Senate bill would cut spending by $2.7 trillion and allow the nation’s debt to increase for about 17 months. A key difference is that the Democrats’ plan would extend the debt limit through the 2012 election, while the Republican plan would require additional votes early next year.

Both plans would establish a 12-member bipartisan committee composed of House and Senate lawmakers, and charge them with finding additional ways to cut the debt, including through tax changes or cuts to entitlement programs. The House plan would require those changes to be made before the debt ceiling could be increased again; the Senate plan would not.

Several influential conservative Republicans, after poring over details of Boehner’s approach following its release at about 11:30 Monday night, said they would not support it.

The problem: not enough spending cuts. Some also want the legislation to be tied to the passage of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

“We think there are real problems with this plan,’’ said Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who heads a fiscally conservative caucus called the Republican Study Group. Jordan said the plan did not have enough support to pass in the House.

The Club for Growth, an influential political advocacy group, also came out against Boehner’s plan. The US Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of it.

House leaders were counting votes yesterday and appeared determined to proceed with a vote.

“I do think that we’re going to have some work to do to get it passed,’’ Boehner said at a press conference yesterday. “But I think we can do it.’’

If Boehner’s plan fails, it would be a striking defeat in his high-profile gamble to shift the course of debate.

The Ohio Republican, who took the speaker’s gavel in January, dropped out of intense negotiations with Obama last week. He also asked for network television time on Monday night to directly rebut Obama’s own nationally televised address.

The House’s previous plan, known as “Cut, Cap and Balance,’’ passed last week with support from 229 Republicans and 5 Democrats. The new plan does not go as far in its proposed cuts, and it does not include the constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, but merely a requirement that a vote on a balanced-budget amendment be held.

The bill needs 217 votes to pass.

“I am totally unimpressed’’ by Boehner’s proposal, said Representative Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican. “It basically just kicks the can down the road,’’ he said, and noted that his message was blunter during a closed-door GOP meeting: “[Expletive] no.’’

Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, said the plan did not include enough spending cuts to avert a credit-rating downgrade.

“This is tough love,’’ he said. “We’ve got a spending problem, a cocaine problem. You don’t give cocaine back to an addict . . . and this system is an addict. You’ve got to have reforms.’’

The defections from their own party led top House Republicans to court conservative Democrats. But top Democrats were determined to keep their rank-and-file in line.

House minority whip Steny Hoyer said yesterday “very few’’ Democrats would support Boehner’s plan. The 10-member, all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation is expected to vote against the bill.

Although US markets remained relatively sanguine, the impasse prompted some pundits and scholars to speculate about the power of the president to intervene and raise the debt limit unilaterally, under provisions of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The White House has sought to tamp down such speculation, and it was not being discussed in the Capitol halls by lawmakers yesterday.

The section was created to ensure the government would pay off Civil War debt, but it has never been used to raise the debt limit.

“An argument could be advanced in good faith and with a straight face that the president does have the power to do this,’’ said Louis Michael Seidman, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University. “For reasons I don’t completely understand, he seems to have taken it off the table. But if Aug. 2 comes and goes and there’s not a settlement . . . I could easily see him reconsidering.’’

For now, though, the argument appears to be nothing more than academic, with the White House repeatedly saying it is an option the president will not utilize.

“It’s not available,’’ White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “The Constitution makes clear that Congress has the authority - not the president - to borrow money. And only Congress can increase the statutory debt ceiling. That’s just a reality.’’

Senators, even as they dug in publicly, were working behind the scenes to find a bipartisan compromise.

“There are conversations going on,’’ Reid said.

“I’m prepared to accept something less than perfect,’’ said his rival, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “Because perfect is not achievable.’’

Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican, declined to comment on the plans.

“It’s changing by the hour,’’ he said of the discussions. “My position hasn’t really changed.’’

A key question, though, will be whether any Senate-backed plan will find favor in the House. If Boehner’s plan fails, lawmakers will have few options.

Matt Viser can be reached at Theo Emery of the Globe staff also contributed to this report.