Speaker John Boehner entered a closed-door Republican Conference meeting Friday morning facing the stark reality of having to sell a debt deal — any deal — to a group of conservatives dead set on not making one before Aug. 2.
According to GOP aides, the Ohio lawmaker’s latest pitch was essentially a return to a modified Cut, Cap and Balance plan that would create a two-step debt ceiling increase. But the newest version would make the second increase in the debt limit next year subject to the House and Senate first passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Initial reviews of the plan appeared good. When asked whether it could get enough votes to now pass the House, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said, “I think it will.”
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said the addition of the amendment requirement “gets a lot of Republican votes.”
Even lawmakers who had come out against the bill earlier in the week were now changing their tune.
“I am absolutely now an enthusiastic ‘yes,’” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said. Likewise, the Club for Growth on Friday lifted its opposition to the bill — so long as the balanced budget provision was included.
But aides cautioned that it was far from certain that conservatives would indeed back the bill, noting leadership thought they would have the votes on Boehner’s bill Thursday, only to see support collapse late in the day.
The biggest hurdle for Boehner has been a core group of conservatives who appear to have little interest in actually passing a deal before the Aug. 2 default deadline.
According to aides, the lack of interest in cutting a deal became clear late Thursday night when conservatives initially rejected a proposal to rewrite Boehner’s debt bill to include a requirement that a second increase be contingent on House and Senate passage of a balanced budget provision.
And not just any balanced budget amendment, but conservatives’ coveted proposal that would also require massive majorities to increase taxes and require Congress to balance the budget using cuts to federal spending.
The rejection caught leadership off guard, sources said, who had assumed the conservatives’ opposition was tied to particular provisions of Boehner’s bill.
Although conservatives have publicly insisted they are open to an agreement — albeit one on their terms — that raises the debt before Aug. 2, behind closed doors at least some have been blunt in their opposition.
For instance, in a July 20 email to a listserv of conservative activists and staff, Republican Study Committee Executive Director Paul Teller wrote: “I’m now more confident than ever that a final solution cannot come before, say, August 4th or 5th. We MUST get past August 2nd if we conservatives are to win.”
Now, whether Boehner can cajole, force, arm-twist or beg enough of his Conference into backing a bill has become the central question of his Speakership.
Sen. Tom Coburn said he remained optimistic that a crisis will be averted. “Oh, we’ll get it done. It’s all just posturing,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
Of course, the veteran conservative was speaking specifically about the Senate. “Oh, not the House. Those guys believe what they believe,” Coburn said.
A GOP Senator also warned that new economic data released Friday, which showed the economy was growing at a much slower rate than had been thought, would do nothing but embolden tea party conservatives.
“It’s only going to make tea party guys more convinced they are right,” the Senator said.