Last Tuesday morning, at 9 a.m. in a room deep within the bowels of the Capitol, Representative John Campbell was trying to determine whether the GOP leadership’s plan to fund the government would sink or swim.
“Some meetings like that, they present an idea, and it just gets blasted,” he says. “And you can just tell, walking out of the meeting, ‘Okay, this is not gonna fly.’”
Campbell, an affable and wealthy Californian who is leaving Congress at the end of this session and is eager to get ownership of his calendar back, has always had a knack for anticipating whether a deal can be struck. When it comes to the deliberations among House Republicans, he says, the key is to watch who is complaining.
“There are some people who tend to oppose anything leadership comes out with,” he says. “If they’re critical, that really doesn’t tell you anything. But if the others who aren’t the automatic ‘no’ people start to criticize, that gives you a message.”
On Tuesday, there were already worrisome signs.
The night before, Majority Leader Eric Cantor had brought a handful of influential House conservatives into the speaker’s ceremonial office right off the House floor to brief them on the plan. It wasn’t what the conservatives, who thought it would be a discussion about what to do, had in mind. Having sat through angry town halls, they were eager to deliver a message, but instead they listened to a plan they felt they had no say in.
The next morning, minutes before Cantor was set to brief the House GOP, Senator Mike Lee of Utah ripped the proposal as a face-saving gimmick. But over on the House side, the vast majority of lawmakers had no idea what Cantor would say.
As the Virginia Republican took the floor, he began to explain his complicated plan to have the Senate vote on defunding Obamacare without actually forcing a showdown on the matter.
The House would vote on two separate proposals: The first would be a “clean” CR; the second would be a separate resolution editing the CR’s text (called an “enrollment correction”) to defund Obamacare. Then, under a tricky bit of parliamentarian mischief, the House would send only the enrollment correction to the Senate. Until they voted on it, the House would physically keep the clean CR in its possession.
It was a lot to process. Members in the room seemed to need time to absorb it. As they walked out of the meeting, surprisingly few members were ready to take a position. It wasn’t a revolt, but it wasn’t a slam dunk, either. “I didn’t come out of there with a feel — I couldn’t tell,” Campbell says.
But the situation was about to get worse for Cantor’s plan.
At 2:56 p.m., an e-mail from the Club for Growth hit the Hill. It said the Club, feared even by its greatest detractors, would be tallying how lawmakers vote on the measure and would put the tally on its voting scorecard, from which it assesses the conservative purity of lawmakers. But the vote the group would be scoring wasn’t the one on the underlying bill — it was on the rule that governs debate, a provocative act. Such “rule votes” are party-line affairs, and abandoning one’s party in this situation is highly unusual. Now, House Republicans would have to choose between their leadership and a powerful conservative force. To make matters worse, Heritage Action followed about an hour later, and then so did FreedomWorks and the Family Research Council.
Behind the scenes, members were pulling their hair out, asking all sorts of questions to understand how the convoluted Cantor plan would really work. The most pressing questions were about the tricky maneuver that involved physically keeping the House-passed bill until the Senate considered the enrollment correction. “That was the thing that was freaking people out,” a senior GOP aide says. “Because it was like, wait a minute, what does ‘consider’ mean? Can the Senate just take it up, not even vote on it, and that counts? Fifty-vote threshold? Sixty votes? And how can the Senate take up an enrollment correction to a bill that they don’t even have in their possession?”
The aide mockingly imagined how the Senate would react: “Oh, my God, we better consider that defund resolution here in the Senate, because we really want those papers from the House on the CR!”