WASHINGTON Thwarted by conservatives in his own Republican Party, House Speaker John Boehner scrambled Tuesday to secure enough GOP votes to beat a fast-closing Aug. 2 deadline and stave off the potential financial chaos of the nations first-ever default.
Even with time running out, the speaker promised to quickly rewrite his debt-ceiling legislation after budget officials said it would cut spending less than advertised. Meanwhile, public head-butting between Democratic President Barack Obama and the Republicans showed no sign of easing. The White House declared Obama would veto the Boehner bill, even if it somehow got through the House and the Democrat-controlled Senate.
For all that, it was the tea party-backed members of Boehners own party who continued to vex him, and heavily influence the debt and deficit negotiating terms not to mention his chances of holding on to the speakership.
Their adamant opposition to any tax increases forced Boehner to back away from a grand bargain with Obama that might have made dramatic cuts in government spending. Yet when Boehner turned this week to a more modest cost-cutting plan, with no tax hikes, many conservatives balked again. They said the proposal lacked the more potent tools they seek, such as a constitutional mandate for balanced budgets.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of a large group of conservative Republicans, sent a tremor through the Capitol on Tuesday when he said he doubted Boehner had enough support to pass his plan later this week, when it is scheduled for a vote. The Boehner bill would require congressional action to raise the debt ceiling this summer, and again before the 2012 elections.
Obama strongly opposes that last requirement, arguing that it would reopen the delicate and crucial debt discussions to unending political pressure during next years campaigns.
The president supports a separate bill, pushed by Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Democrat-controlled Senate, that would raise the debt ceiling enough to tide the government over through next year and the elections.
Boehner wasnt helped by an official congressional analysis late Tuesday that said his plan would produce smaller savings than originally promised less than $1 trillion in spending cuts over the coming decade rather than the $1.2 trillion he estimated on Monday.
Boehners office said it would rewrite the legislation to make sure the spending cuts exceed the amount the debt limit would be raised. Adding a political touch, it accused the Democrats of declining to put forward specifics subject to the same sort of review.
Earlier, responding to the conservative Republican opposition, Boehner quickly went on Rush Limbaughs radio show, then he began one-on-one chats with wavering Republicans on the House floor during midday roll call votes.
He has to convince a few people, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., observed dryly from a doorway.
A serious, almost dire urgency ran through Boehners efforts. The clock was ticking down to next Tuesdays deadline to continue the governments borrowing powers and avert possible defaults on U.S. loans.
Congressional veterans say a final-hour bargain cant be reached until both parties irrefutably prove to themselves and the public that neither the Democrats top goals nor the Republicans can be reached in the divided Congress.
Moreover, Boehners grasp on the speakership could be weakened if he fails to pass the debt-ceiling plan that bears his name. Assuming no more than five Democrats support the measure the same number that backed a GOP balanced-budget bill last week Boehner can afford to lose no more than 28 of the Houses 240 Republicans.
His allies predicted hell make it, and Boehner got a vocal endorsement from his sometimes rival, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. But holdouts were not limited to the much-discussed freshman class, elected in the tea party-fueled 2010 elections.
He cant get my vote because I felt like that, for long-term solutions to this problem, all these promises we make in cutting spending never seem to occur, said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. Ive been here nine years and Ive never seen it happen yet.
Six-term Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime critic of deficit spending, said he also was leaning against Boehners bill even though he knows a tougher measure cannot be enacted. Obviously you have to weigh that against passing something that just doesnt solve the problem, Flake said.
Major business groups weighed in. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged support of Boehners bill, while the conservative Club for Growth denounced it as too weak.
While Boehner searched for votes, some Americans seemed to edge closer to notion that the Aug. 2 deadline might pass without a solution. The stock market fell again, although not dramatically. California planned to borrow about $5 billion from private investors as a hedge against a possible federal government default.
The White House spoke with veterans groups about what might happen to vets benefits if a deal isnt reached. Obama has said he cant guarantee Social Security checks and payments to veterans and the disabled would go out on schedule.
The Senate worked on other issues, waiting to see if Boehners bill would pass the House and come its way. Reid, D-Nev., said the Boehner bill could not pass his chamber.
Reid has his own plan. Like Boehners, it would identify about $1.2 trillion in spending cuts to the day-to-day operating budgets of government agencies. Reids proposal, however, would require only one congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling before the 2012 elections. And it counts an extra $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both proposals would create a bipartisan congressional commission to identify further deficit reductions, especially in major health-care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
For seven months, tea party-backed House members freshmen and veterans alike have rewritten congressional traditions. Speakers typically can twist arms, offer favors and issue veiled threats to round up the needed support on tough votes. Its possible Boehner will be able to do so on the debt-ceiling matter.
But many tea party activists abhor political compromise. They insist that their elected officials stand on principle, regardless of the consequences.
A lot of the tea party guys owe certain support groups, said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C. He said he had not decided how to vote on Boehners bill.
Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., bristles at the notion that tea party-influenced newcomers are sheep-like ideologues willing to risk default. Were not a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing Neanderthals, Gowdy said. Were interested in answering what we perceive to be the mandate, which is to stop the spending and change the way Washington handles money.