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GOP plan on debt gets push in House

Leaders press case before a vote today; Boehner proposal unlikely to pass Senate

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON - House Republicans began coalescing yesterday around House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to avoid default on the national debt, saying the very future of their party was at stake in the fight, even as Senate Democrats said the bill stands no chance of passing their chamber.

A day after Boehner’s plan encountered stiff resistance from conservatives in his own party, House Republicans held an emotional closed-door meeting where leadership pressured members to vote for the speaker’s proposal when it comes to the floor today. The legislation would raise the debt ceiling in two steps, now and early next year, and make offsetting spending cuts over the next decade.

In a caucus that is divided between Tea Party-backed insurgents who want more cuts and more moderate Republicans who want to project a united front, Boehner had a blunt message for dissenters in his party: “I can’t do this job unless you’re behind me.’’

“There is no other alternative, really, for Republicans at this point,’’ said Representative Peter King, a New York Republican. “We would weaken ourselves as a party for the next year and a half. It’s almost like a vote of no confidence in our party if we vote it down. . . . This goes right to the heart of where we are as a party.’’

But with just six days left before the federal government may have to stop paying some of its bills, and with the stock market falling, Congress remained at an impasse yesterday with no signs of when or how compromise could be reached.

Leaders on both sides continued to say they would reach a solution and vowed not to allow the country to default. What is politically possible may be clearer today after the House votes.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said that time was running short but held out hope that a bipartisan compromise could be in the works.

“Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time under the right circumstances,’’ he said.

Even if the House approves Boehner’s plan, deep uncertainty remains over the next steps. Reid predicted yesterday that every Senate Democrat would oppose it, leaving little chance it would pass the upper chamber.

“The Boehner plan is dead,’’ said Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “You need to get agreement, and there are talks going on to try and get that agreement.’’

The House plan had already been under fire Tuesday by conservative Republicans when it was dealt a further blow by the Congressional Budget Office. The independent office determined that the legislation would save $850 billion over the next decade - far less than the $1.2 trillion Boehner’s office had estimated.

That caused Boehner to postpone a vote planned for yesterday and instead begin rewriting the legislation to propose additional cuts.

After House GOP lawmakers made changes, the budget office said yesterday afternoon that the new proposal would save $917 billion over the next decade. That would be just enough to offset a proposed $900 billion increase in the debt limit.

The budget office also determined yesterday that the Senate legislation being crafted by Reid would not save as much as advertised.

The Senate bill, which was advertised as cutting spending by $2.7 trillion, would cut spending by $2.2 trillion, according to the office. About half of the savings included in the Senate legislation are attributed to winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Because that spending is not planned to continue anyway, Republicans have criticized it as a budget gimmick.

Some House Republicans said they would rather see the country go into default than approve the Senate plan.

“I don’t see the Reid plan being able to pass here,’’ said Representative Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican. “You’d rather go to a default and make the president prioritize under that scenario. And then we can see what’s really important and what isn’t.’’

Both plans would establish a 12-member bipartisan committee composed of House and Senate lawmakers and charge them with finding additional ways to cut the deficit, including through tax changes or cuts to entitlement programs. The House plan would require those changes to be made before the debt ceiling could be increased again; the Senate plan would not.

One key point of dispute is how long to extend the debt ceiling. The Democrats’ plan would extend it through the 2012 election, while the Republican plan would require additional votes early next year.

The White House has said it would veto any legislation that did not extend the debt limit through the elections.

The House vote is likely to be close. There are 240 House Republicans, and Boehner can lose only 23 of them if Democrats unite in opposition. As of yesterday afternoon, there were 18 Republicans who said they would vote no, or were leaning no, according to a running tally compiled by the National Journal. Another eight lawmakers were undecided.

Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, was still torn yesterday over the vote. At one point during the caucus, he pulled out a quote from the late theologian Francis Schaeffer that he had written down during a recent sermon at his church.

“ ‘If you’re going to expect perfect or nothing, you’ll get nothing every time,’ ’’ he said. “I don’t want nothing. But I do want to make sure it’s significant.’’

Some House Democrats urged President Obama yesterday to intervene and raise the debt limit unilaterally, under a provision of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The section was created to ensure the government would pay off Civil War debt, but it has never been used to raise the debt limit.

“If nothing passes out of here and on Aug. 2 he’s sitting there with nothing, what should he do, allow the country to default? I don’t think so,’’ Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, who is the third-ranking House Democrat, said in an interview.

When told the White House was resisting that approach as a legally untested way to raise the debt limit, he responded, “I’m so glad that Abraham Lincoln didn’t say that when it came time to free the slaves. That was an executive order. . . . A lot of time when Congress can’t get it together, presidents use their power.’’

House Democrats - led by Representative Peter Welch of Vermont - began calling yesterday for a straightforward debt limit increase that would not tackle the broader deficit issues but would prevent the country from defaulting on its debts next week. The legislation had more than 100 cosponsors, including half of the 10-member Massachusetts delegation, but faces major hurdles in the Republican-controlled House because it would extend the debt limit through 2012 without any budget cuts.

“While we fully support continued efforts to reach a bipartisan agreement to significantly reduce the deficit, we believe it is essential to have legislation available for immediate congressional action that will prevent America’s looming default,’’ read a letter being circulated by Democrats. “Failing to do so will be catastrophic for our economy and for hard working American families, seniors, and businesses.’’

Members of Congress have had their phone lines jammed in recent days, partly in response to President Obama’s call in a nationally televised address Monday for the public to contact their congressional representatives.

Representative Frank Guinta, a New Hampshire Republican, said that when he arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday, the hourlong answering machine at his office was full. By midday, his office had received 1,000 e-mails and several hundred phone calls from voters expressing frustration.

Representative Charlie Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, had a telephone town hall last night, which 6,500 people joined to listen. Some called for Congress to include tax increases in any proposal as a way to cut down the deficit, an approach Republicans have consistently opposed. Others were simply angry.

“It is absolutely disgusting the Congress and president have held the American economy hostage,’’ one caller said. “I will never vote for any of you [if the country defaults on its payments]. You deserve to leave if you can’t handle it. People are mad as hell.’’

“I can certainly understand your anger,’’ Bass replied. “I ran for Congress last year because I felt the same way you did.’’

Bass has said that he would support Boehner’s legislation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.