It was supposed to happen Wednesday, then again on Thursday. It was supposed to be a squeaker, and potentially a viable measure to avoid default. But in the end there was no suspense, and the vote was mostly ceremonial. Early Friday evening, House Republicans passed legislation to raise the national debt limit — their final symbolic gesture in a partisan debate that has raged for months and seen the GOP bring the country to the brink of economic collapse.
The final vote was 218 in favor to 210 against. Zero Democrats joined the majority, and only 22 Republicans voted with the Democrats.
When discussions between Boehner and President Obama over pairing a the debt limit extension and deficit reduction measures fell apart, the task of avoiding default fell to Congress — and presented Boehner with a major challenge: How could he be both a responsible steward of the country and usher through bipartisan legislation to avoid a catastrophic default, and not break faith with his members.
For weeks, Boehner’s been straddling the widening chasm between the conservative rump in his caucus, and the rest of Congress. Yesterday, he fell into the pit. With the August 2 deadline less than a week away, Boehner had hoped he’d be able to craft legislation to raise the debt limit conservative enough to win the support of the majority of his caucus, but scaled back enough to make up the difference with a handful of Democrats.
What he came up with — a plan that would have forced Congress to accept deep entitlement cuts in the month ahead under the threat of yet another default — unified Democrats in opposition, and left him with the unenviable task of finding 217 Republicans who support a plan that lacked the radical provisions they’ve long demanded.
He couldn’t put it together. That left him to choose between admitting total defeat, or throwing his caucus more red meat and passing yet another symbolic measure. He chose the latter. At this point his bill’s only substantive purpose may be to serve as a vehicle for Senate Democrats and Republicans to pass a viable, bipartisan debt limit bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is eyeing two separate avenues to passing such a bill — one that would result in Senate passage of a debt limit bill Monday morning, another that would wrap up the Senate’s work Tuesday, each leaving House Democratic and Republican leaders precious little time to cobble together a coalition to pass it.
Reid has his eyes on several Republicans who might co-operate. The huge question looming over the Capitol at this point is whether Boehner has enough sway with his caucus to put together a substantial number of votes — enough to pass something before the country’s borrowing authority expires late Tuesday evening.
Late Update: Boehner on the House floor: “I Stuck My Neck Out A Mile!”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.