Debt Ceiling Vote: Tea Party Gives Speaker Boehner Something to Cry About

UPDATE: At around 6:20 PM EDT, the House passed, by a vote of 218-210, a revised version of the Boehner bill to raise the debt ceiling, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to reject. The revised version includes a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, and requires the amendment to be sent to the states for ratification before the debt ceiling can be raised again in Feburary. The constitutional amendment provision was what it took for House Speaker John Boehner to rally enough Tea Party-allied members of Congress to vote for the bill. Despite today's legislative victory, Boehner's hold on the speaker's gavel remains tenuous, his position weakened by the revolt of right-wing members on the speaker as he attempted to pass a bill last night that did not include the constitutional amendment.

When, after the Democrats' stunning defeat in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, was elected speaker of the House, he wept tears of joy, marveling at how the greatness of America enabled so humble a soul as he to reach such a lofty position. Boehner's emotion was understandable (if a bit overwrought): he believed in that moment that he was now in charge of the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the greatest legislative bodies in the world. He was mistaken.

The nation, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, is a mere three days from defaulting on its debt, an event that could wreak havoc on the global economy if it is allowed to happen. If the current wrangling over a debt-ceiling deal -- essentially a deal that would allow Treasury to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred -- proves the weakness of President Obama in the face of the Republican majority in the House, it also shows the weakness of the speaker before the power of his own members, especially those allied with the Tea Party movement.

That Boehner was forced to postpone last night's scheduled vote on a debt-ceiling bill, one that never stood a chance of passing the Senate, does not augur well for the speaker's prospects at holding onto his job. Analysts suggest that in seeking to bring his bill to the floor, Boehner merely wanted to have passed a bill he could wave in Democrats' faces as proof that his Republicans were serious about lifting, however briefly, the debt ceiling -- thus relieving the nation of the default danger Republicans have conferred upon it, if only Democrats would do the "patriotic" thing and get the bill through the Senate. But after a day of arm-twisting his members, and a public promise that he would muster a win, Boehner failed to get the votes.

Some suggest that such a vote sets the stage for Republicans to negotiate a debt-ceiling package with Reid, who has proposed a bill that also features deep cuts and no new revenue, but would push the next requirement for a raising of the debt ceiling until after the 2012 presidential election.

The victories of the hard-right politicians supported by Americans For Prosperity and other right-wing organizations yielded Boehner the speaker's gavel; today their distaste for Boehner's deficit-reduction plan, which would lift the debt ceiling until the end of the year in exchange for $900 billion in spending cuts that include Medicare outlays, threatens his future as speaker. Even though the bill contains no provisions for new revenue, which was a sticking point for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Tea Partiers in an earlier proposal, last night's withholding of votes from the measure by some in the GOP caucus seems to be more a statement on Boehner's leadership than on the measure itself.

For Democrats, the Boehner bill is a non-starter. As The New Republic's Jonathan Chait describes it, "Boehner's offer is like a kidnapper who offers to give you back your child in return for $100,000 and your other child." Not nearly enough for certain Tea Party Republicans, apparently.

"Let's Kick the Shit Out of Them!"

After days of closed-door haggling and press-conference warfare between Republicans and Democrats, the story erupted Wednesday into one of a furious family feud among congressional Republicans, with members of the right-wing Republican Study Committee revealed to have sent e-mails to outside groups urging them to oppose the deficit-focused debt-ceiling package proposed by their own speaker. In a closed-door meeting attended by the offending RSC staffer, Paul Teller, House members more loyal to Boehner chanted in Teller's direction, "Fire him!"

Yesterday, Boehner's patience with his own members seemed to fray; speaking to his caucus in a closed-door meeting, he told members to "get your ass in line behind me."

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., a former football player, tried to rally his colleagues behind Boehner with a speech laced with football jargon, according to Politico. “Play like a champion today,” he reportedly told fellow members. Then, sources inside the meeting told Politico, Kelly said of the Democrats, "Let’s kick the shit out of them.”

In truth, the cracks in the Republican coalition were evident last weak, as Boehner's second-in-command, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, undercut Boehner during the speaker's debt-ceiling negotiations with the president, refusing to accept the deal Boehner appeared poised to make.

By yesterday, things had shifted to the point where Cantor, with several significant members of the Tea Party movement, were supporting Boehner's current plan -- which includes no new revenue -- but the earlier undermining of the speaker seemed to embolden enough House Republicans to deny Boehner's plan their support that the speaker felt compelled to cancel a scheduled vote on the measure.

The Gingrich Curse?

On the day last January when Boehner received the speaker's gavel from the hands of Nancy Pelosi, a man to whom many in that GOP majority are indebted was on hand to witness the moment delivered through the work of the astroturfing organizations he founded: David Koch, chairman of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, and founder of its sibling political-organizing group, simply called Americans For Prosperity.

Although it's true that for some of these members of Congress, any raising of the debt ceiling constitutes a form of heresy, the Boehner bill would actually codify much of the Tea Party-approved Ryan budget plan, which was rejected by virtually all the House Democrats. And yesterday, even the budget plan's author, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.,who chairs the House Budget Committee and is a favorite of Americans For Prosperity, was calling for its passage, but to no avail.

Part of the reason behind the bill's unpopularity may be the promise of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to table it, meaning that a "yes" vote by a right-wing member will go down on his record as his having voted to raise the debt ceiling, while gleaning no real political payoff come election time. In the meantime, Boehner's tenure as Speaker could be drawing to a close.

Had he been paying attention, Boehner might have noticed a gauntlet at his feet on that very first day he wielded the speaker's gavel, a gauntlet thrown by Koch's man in Washington, Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips.

Indeed, freshman Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., in during debate on the bill on the House floor, tipped his hand as one who was elected on the winds of the Tea Party movement.  "Since we came in in January," Lankford said, "we have been talking about this very minute."

The morning before he joined his boss, David Koch, at the swearing-in ceremony for newly-elected members of Congress last winter, Phillips stopped by the Leadership Institute, a training ground for right-wing activists in Arlington, Va., to deliver remarks to a crowd gathered for the Institute's monthly breakfast gatherings.

There Phillips recalled the Republican revolution of 1994, the last time the GOP seized control of the House from the Democrats. Although Republicans were able to pass some "good legislation" under then Speaker Newt Gingrich, Phillips explained, they weren't able to do what they had really been sent there to do: shrink the size of the federal government. The problem, as Phillips explained it, was that the infrastructure at the Republicans' disposal was no match for that of the Democrats, what with their "ground army" of union members, and a media that was not sympathetic, in his view, to conservative claims. "Fox News was not yet strong," he said, and the right-wing blogosphere had yet to be born.

And so, Phillips went on, "free-market conservative[s]" were easily defeated on many fronts by the sort of "moderate liberal" represented by President Bill Clinton.

But today, all that is changed, Phillips implied, not least of all via the "ground army" raised by Americans For Prosperity. It could be argued, however, that the tolerance of Republicans for a Speaker who becomes a liability is no greater now than it was in the 1990s. John Boehner would be wise, at this moment, to consider the fate of Speaker Gingrich, whom a younger John Boehner helped to depose. It's enough to make a grown man cry.


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