A crisis of credit, credibility

Along partisan lines, House passes debt ceiling bill, which Senate shelves; pressure for compromise builds

The deficit-reduction plan that Speaker John Boehner struggled to get through the House was quickly rejected by the Senate last night. The deficit-reduction plan that Speaker John Boehner struggled to get through the House was quickly rejected by the Senate last night. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
By Donovan Slack and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / July 30, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Resolution of the federal debt ceiling stalemate shifted to a new stage last night as the House approved Speaker John Boehner’s $917 billion deficit-reduction plan along narrow partisan lines. The focus now is on the Senate, which promptly tabled the Boehner bill, and on the ability of its majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, to forge a compromise bill that can pass in both chambers before Tuesday, when the government is expected to be without enough money to meet its obligations.

After two failed attempts to overcome conservative Republican opposition to his plan, Boehner finally corralled enough votes by agreeing to link future debt-limit increases to passage of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a near impossibility in the current political environment because it would require a two-thirds majority of both houses. Also, because the Boehner bill increases the debt limit by just $900 billion, the government would need another increase early next year, a sticking point with President Obama and Senate Democrats, who want no further debt ceiling battles until after the 2012 election. The House passed the bill by a thin margin, 218-210, with no Democrats backing the plan.

“It is time for our colleagues across the aisle to tell us what they’re for. Tell us how we can end this crisis,’’ Boehner said.

Reid blasted the plan, and the Senate wasted no time in voting to shelve it.

“The Republican plan is not a solution,’’ Reid said. “As experts say, all too soon we would be back in the midst of partisan wrangling with our economy once again held prisoner by extremists in the Republican Party, led by the Tea Party.’’

Discussion turned once again yesterday to some type of grand compromise that would require the support of Republicans and Democrats in both houses in order to pass without the votes of the staunchly conservative House freshmen and likeminded senators.

“What’s clear now is any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan,’’ Obama said at the White House yesterday morning. “It must have the support of both parties that were sent here to represent the American people, not just one faction. It will have to have the support of both the House and the Senate.’’

The burden is on Reid, who will have to patch together a compromise with ideas from the various plans he and others have floated. He said yesterday that he is willing to include Republican ideas, including a vote on a balanced budget amendment, although he did not say he would link it to future debt-limit increases.

“I say to my Republican colleagues in the Senate, do the right thing. Put the interests of the country ahead of the Tea Party extremists - they’re the ones driving it,’’ Reid said.

Reid released the framework for a possible compromise last night, which was taken mainly from a measure he had proposed earlier to cut spending by $2.2 trillion while raising the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion, enough to cover spending until 2013. It also incorporates parts of a plan from Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, which allows the president to raise the borrowing limit in stages without congressional authority.

Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, indicated yesterday that he is open to a compromise measure.

“As I’ve said before, I don’t really care if it’s a Democrat bill or a Republican bill,’’ he said in an interview, noting that his key requirements are not raising taxes, averting default, and instituting serious spending cuts.

Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he believes the Reid compromise will be “reasonable,’’ but he was uncertain about its prospects in the House.

“We’ll debate it, and ultimately I hope we can find a critical mass in the Senate that can pass it,’’ he said. “I think it’ll be up to the House whether they want to default the country.’’

In an impassioned speech on the House floor, Boehner said he had done all he could to try to “find a common-sense solution that could pass both houses of Congress and end this crisis.’’

“We tried to do the right thing by our country, but some people continue to say no,’’ he said.

Just before the House vote, Representative James Lankford, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, said that a balanced budget amendment is central to why voters sent him and other conservative GOP freshmen to the House last fall.

A balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, aside from passage in both chambers, would require ratification by three-quarters of the states.

Supporters say 49 of 50 states are required to balance their budgets and the federal government should be forced to as well. But opponents say such a requirement would hamper the federal government’s ability to respond to emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and wars.

“There is no fix for a budget debt bigger than a balanced budget amendment,’’ Lankford said. “That doesn’t resolve it today, but that does put a future hope out there once that gets in place that we’re actually going to fix this.’’

Representative James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, had some particularly harsh words about the balanced budget amendment and took to the House floor yesterday to urge colleagues to reject more partisan bickering.

“Enough of the press releases, enough of the theatrics, enough of the political stunts,’’ he said. “I urge you to reject this and get back to the negotiating table and avert an economic crisis.’’

In an interview later he said the new Boehner plan was “even more right wing than the proposal they pulled from the floor [Thursday] night.’’

Representative Barney Frank said he was dumbfounded by Boehner’s kowtowing to his party’s right wing and said he believes it has weakened the speaker’s authority considerably.

“I’ve never seen a leader this weak - of either party,’’ said Frank, a House member since 1981. “He’s had to keep giving in.’’

Treasury officials declined to release details yesterday about what the agency plans to do if Congress cannot reach a deal by Tuesday, when they predict the country won’t have enough money to pay all its bills, including Social Security and veterans benefits.

Obama urged citizens to press their elected representatives in Congress to sign on to a compromise, warning “we are now running out of time.’’

Still, the president sounded a confident note.

“For all the intrigue and all the drama that’s taking place on Capitol Hill right now, I’m confident that common sense and cooler heads will prevail,’’ he said.

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