Debt-ceiling vote: Can John Boehner win it? What if he can't?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 26 2011 7:57 PM

Game of Votes

Can John Boehner win enough votes for his debt-ceiling plan? What if he can't?

John Boehner and Harry Reid. Click image to expand.
John Boehner and Harry Reid have been working on rival debt plans

Rep. Peter Welch is ready to declare defeat. For months, the Vermont Democrat tried to give House Speaker John Boehner some breathing room, and pledge as many Democrats as possible—114 of them—to a "clean" vote on the debt limit. That plan was left for dead long ago. The discussion has moved on to a Republican plan that would raise the debt limit while requiring votes on a balanced-budget amendment and an entitlement-reform committee, or a Democratic plan that offers nothing but cuts.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"Elections have consequences," Welch said today, leaning on a table outside the floor of the House. "And the House Republicans have been successful in getting two plans, Boehner and Reid, that are all cuts, no revenues, and a debate about doing this all at once or doing it in two stages. The Democratic approach was a balanced approach. We lost."

As Welch kept talking, this started to sound less and less like resignation. It sounded like a strategy. He and his pledgers are supposed to be the ones so worried about default that they'll vote to rescue Boehner. Not this time. He supports Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan, but not Boehner's, because Reid's plan doesn't touch entitlements.

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Why would Welch and his fellow Democrats matter at all for Boehner? Because Republicans were spending Tuesday, as they would be spending Wednesday, putting together 217 votes to pass the bill. Because right before Welch said this, Rep. Jim Jordan had spoken on behalf of his Republican Study Committee—the guys who brought you the "Cut, Cap, and Balance Act," which calls for much steeper cuts than the Boehner plan calls for—and said, "I am confident as of this morning that there were not 218 Republicans in support of this plan." (Actually, because of two vacancies in the House, only 217 votes are needed to pass the bill.)

The math is simple, or as simple as the voodoo of vote-counting can ever be. There are 240 Republicans in the House. Nine of them voted against the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" bill on the grounds that it didn't cut enough. That leaves 231 possible Republican votes, giving Boehner a 14-vote margin of error. Meanwhile, a total of 116 House Republicans signed the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" pledge (229 voted for the actual bill), showing their anti-tax, anti-spend bona fides, and a healthy percentage of them are predisposed to view the Boehner plan as insufficient.

For Boehner's plan to succeed, then, one of two things needs to happen. Either a vast majority of Republicans needs to welsh on their pledge, or some House Democrats need to bail Boehner out.

Who could those Democrats be? Good question! Five House Democrats voted for Cut, Cap, and Balance. For them, it was easy—the bill wasn't going to pass and it put them on record for a version of the ever-popular balanced-budget amendment. This vote isn't so easy. Only two of the five Democrats would talk about their current stance. According to Rep. Jim Matheson's office, he was "still reviewing the language" of Boehner's plan. According to Rep. Heath Shuler's office, he's simply against it.

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