Boehner Searches for Votes

by Robert Costa

After a relatively calm conference meeting this morning, Speaker John Boehner is moving forward with his new fiscal strategy, which slightly revises the bipartisan framework being discussed in the Senate. But he’s treading carefully. According to his allies, he’s still hoping to bring the House’s plan to the floor tonight, and he thinks it can pass, as long as a few elements of the proposal are adjusted. The 218 votes he needs, though, aren’t there yet, and he and his team are spending the afternoon informally whipping skeptical Republicans.

One major development: The delay of the medical-device tax, which was part of Boehner’s proposal earlier today, is now out of the package, according to sources close to the internal House GOP deliberations. Conservatives complained today that delaying the tax would be “crony capitalism” and they can’t sell it to the Republican base as a viable Republican win. 

But that swift change hasn’t stalled the GOP’s push for a Tuesday vote. “The leaders are giving us one more chance to get something passed out of the House before the Senate does its thing,” says a veteran House Republican. “I think we’ll get it through, at least that’s my sense of things now. We want to do something that marks our position, so we don’t end up swallowing whatever terrible bait the Senate casts our way. Now, I know, and the majority of us know, that this is futile. But believe me, even getting to 218 on this plan will be an achievement.”

Another small but key early snag: the scope of the so-called Vitter Amendment, which would end federal contributions to the health-care plans of congressional employees. At the conference meeting this morning, the leadership decided to end those contributions only for members of Congress and Cabinet officials, but not for staffers. Conservatives quickly pushed back, and they’re now asking the leadership to expand the language. The leadership is expected to comply as a way of winning support.

On the other fronts, the majority of the Republican conference is mostly united. They’re okay with extending the debt limit and funding the government, and they like the idea of broader budget talks later this year. The’ve also agreed to tinker with Boener’s proposed dates. Instead of opening the government through early 2014, they’ll do it through December 15, and they’ll exend the debt ceiling through February 7. “This is our plan,” explains a House leadership staffer. “It’s imperfect and small and we want much more, but it’s our plan, not the Senate’s. We think it’s got a pretty good shot.” 

Meetings so far at the Capitol have been inconclusive. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor aren’t panicking, and they’re planning a series of further meetings this afternoon. Aides say they were deliberately vague at conference about the exact contours of the legislation they’re cooking up, in order to give them maneuvering room as they meet with members and amend the bill. Another factor that’s under the radar: knowing the leadership needs them, some members are trying to deal for concessions unrelated to the impasse, looking to trade their support for district-related concerns.

Beyond Boehner’s office, budget chairman Paul Ryan, who has been an instrumental leadership confidant over the past few weeks, is talking with colleagues, trying to get them behind the plan as he looks toward broader budget discussions. But even Ryan is meeting resistance from the bloc of approximately 50 conservatives who are unhappy with the strategy. After fighting to delay and defund Obamacare for months, they’re not ready to back a watered-down plan.

House insiders say Boehner’s fear is that conservative activists and powerful conservative groups start to align against the bill and rattle its fragile coalition. If that happens, and the bill’s support falls apart, a simple, six-week debt-ceiling extension is still in the leadership’s back pocket, but there’s no plan to bring that up anytime soon. More likely, should things fizzle on the whip front, is that another conference meeting is called and the House GOP “gets real,” as one Boehner ally puts it, about “what’s possible within divided government, and whether Republicans are willing to back anything at all.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have slowed down their talks with Democrats as they wait to see if Boehner can pass his plan. Privately, they’re worried that if Boehner struggles to find support for his amped-up version of the emerging Senate deal, it’ll give even more leverage to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “If the House can’t get its act together, we’re going to get nothing, other than preserving sequestration,” says a Senate GOP aide. “They’re playing games, and we’re over here, just trying to survive.”