House delays a vote on debt limit

Support still lacking for Boehner plan

By Donovan Slack and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Inflexible House Republicans forced Speaker John Boehner late last night to put off an expected vote on legislation to raise the country’s borrowing limit, dealing a stunning blow to the GOP leader’s authority just days before the country is set to run out of money.

A House vote had been expected early yesterday evening but was delayed while Boehner and his deputies tried for hours to wring enough votes from conservatives to pass his plan to increase the nation’s debt limit.

By late last night, the speaker and his lieutenants still lacked the votes they needed and called off further action for the day. Even if the bill had passed, the Democratic leader of the Senate said his chamber would reject it.

The Boehner bill would cut some $917 billion in spending, raise the debt limit by $900 billion, and require Congress to increase the limit again early next year. But it lacked a balanced-budget amendment, a key demand of many conservative and Tea Party-backed Republicans. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said he cannot support Boehner’s bill. “I simply cannot raise the debt ceiling if we are not going to fundamentally change the way we do business,’’ Chaffetz said.

The speaker did not say how he plans to move forward today. His deputy, House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, said only, “No vote tonight.’’

Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, called it pathetic that the House appeared deadlocked over the legislation.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the House of Representatives was unable to work together in a bipartisan way to avoid default,’’ he said in a statement. “Frankly, this is pathetic. The American people deserve better. I call upon my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to rise above partisanship. The time to act is now.’’

Senate majority leader Harry Reid called the House measure a short-term fix that risked the downgrading of the nation’s credit rating, even while alleviating the looming cash crunch.

“It does not provide stability and it certainly doesn’t help our economy in any way,’’ Reid said.

The Obama administration has said it needs the limit increased by $2.4 trillion to meet spending needs until 2013. Republicans have rejected such a large increase.

If the House passes the Boehner bill and the Senate rejects it, the focus would be squarely on a competing proposal from Reid. That plan would cut spending by $2.2 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It would also raise the debt limit enough to meet spending needs until 2013, postponing the next battle over the debt until after the next election - a key demand of Senate leaders and President Obama. Both plans call for a 12-member bipartisan congressional commission to agree on cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare and changes in the tax code.

About half of the savings in Reid’s measure comes from winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, something Republicans have called a “budget gimmick’’ because the wars are ending anyway.

Another measure that has been called a last resort is one floated by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. It would allow the president to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval.

But that initiative also faces Republican opposition in the House, where conservative members have said McConnell’s plan would allow the country to continue the spending that they came to Washington to stop.

The Senate could also come up with some amalgam of the various measures, including the Boehner bill.

Either way, the scrambled schedule means no Senate vote is possible before Sunday, and a final passage in that chamber could not come before Monday, pushing the nation perilously close to the deadline for default.

The House would then have to pass the Senate version before it is sent to the president’s desk for signing.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the country will reach the current $14.3 trillion borrowing limit Tuesday and subsequently will not have enough money to pay all its bills, including Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

White House officials declined yesterday to outline which bills it will pay first or any contingency plans that are in place if Congress fails to reach a deal in time. David Plouffe, senior adviser to the president, said Treasury officials will be releasing such details in the coming days. He said the administration right now is focused on facilitating a congressional compromise. Obama has expressed support for both the Reid and McConnell plans.

“Our view is that we will be at stalemate after tonight,’’ Plouffe said. “Hopefully over the weekend we’ll see a breakthrough here.’’

Boehner sidestepped questions about what would happen in the event that his bill passed the House and the Senate rejected it, and said he did not know if his legislation would avert a downgrade of the credit rating for the federal government, one of the most feared outcomes of the stalemate.

“That is beyond my control,’’ he said. “All I know is that this bipartisan bill is as large a step as we’re able to take at this point in time that is doable and signable and [can] become law.’’

Boehner’s difficulty in winning GOP votes for his plan became evident earlier in the week when he delayed by a day the planned vote on the measure. Many Tea Party-backed freshmen have refused to vote for raising the debt limit without deep spending cuts, caps on future spending, and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The House passed such a bill last week, but it died in the Senate. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called Tea Party Republicans’ insistence on the amendment, knowing it will not pass the Senate, “bizarro’’ on Wednesday.

Some of the freshman Republicans said yesterday that they changed their minds and decided to support the Boehner bill after House leadership promised a separate vote today on a balanced-budget amendment. That measure still would face an uphill battle in the Senate but would not hold up the debt limit increase.

Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, in a speech on the House floor yesterday, blamed the Tea Party movement for gumming up legislative compromise.

“The Tea Party has congressional Republicans wrapped around its little finger,’’ said Markey, Democrat of Malden. “But it’s the American people who are going to get squeezed.’’

Representative Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat, said the Bush administration is to blame for running up the bills that created the current crisis and that members of Congress - from both sides of the aisle - have no choice but to solve it.

“The bill, our friends, has come due,’’ he said in a floor speech. “We cannot send a message to markets anywhere that the full faith and credit of the United States of America is at risk.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at Theo Emery can be reached at Follow them on Twitter @DonovanSlack and @temery.