How House Republicans Wasted a Day

A GOP proposal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown seems destined to fail as the nation moved closer to default.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

To say that the future seemed bright this morning would be an overstatement, but there were some rays breaking through the clouds for those hoping to see the two-week government shutdown resolved. An agreement to raise the debt ceiling and open the government seemed imminent. But as the day wraps up, the forecast is dark clouds ahead.

After talks yesterday between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it seemed Tuesday morning that Senate leaders were close to a deal with which they could "jam" the House, forcing Speaker John Boehner to bring legislation to the floor and pass it with Democratic votes. There were two obvious ways this could go wrong: First, a lone senator or a few senators could bottle it up in the Senate; second, the House could refuse to take the bill. It turned out that the second one is what happened.

House Republican leaders wanted to try to cut the Senate deal off at the pass, sensing they might not be able to pass the Senate bill and hoping to gain some leverage, Boehner and his lieutenants went into a caucus meeting this morning and put forward a proposal that would have raised the debt ceiling through February 7 (the same as the Senate plan); reopened the government until December 15; stripped members of Congress of subsidies for health care; and banned the Treasury from using the so-called "extraordinary measures" that allow it to juggle funds and push back the date at which the nation hits the debt ceiling.

But it was immediately clear that bill was troubled. Even before it was pitched to them, conservatives were grousing that it didn't do anything to stop health-care reform from proceeding. So Boehner and his team went about sweetening the pot, trying to find ways to make the bill appeal to more Republicans, including stripping congressional staffers of the health-care subsidies, too. The problem is that anything that makes it more likely that Boehner can get 218 Republican votes in the House also makes it more likely that such a proposal will never, ever come to fruition. The White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have already said they will never accept any bill that includes the changes to health-care subsidies (known as the Vitter Amendment, for its Senate sponsor, David Vitter of Louisiana).

Even that "sweetened" approach failed, though. Republican leaders already weren't whipping the bill (counting votes to make sure it would pass), suggesting some disorganization and pessimism. Then the influential conservative activist groups FreedomWorks and Heritage Action both announced that they opposed the House proposal. Shortly thereafter, the House GOP postponed indefinitely a rules hearing that would have set the stage for a vote on their plan. It seems likely there will be no vote Tuesday, and if Republican leaders have a master plan for their next step, no one seems to know what it is; they appear to be making it up as they go along.

“I don’t know in my 17 years here where I’ve seen a situation where a solution looked less likely,” Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi told Politico.

Oh—and while this was happening, work on the Senate deal was frozen, and the ratings agency Fitch announced a negative outlook for the U.S. credit rating.

Where does that leave things? With the House incapable of even pulling together a proposal that can pass, the action moves back to the Senate to pass its bill (and either deal with or evade procedural measures that could slow it way down) and then jam the House—which, naturally, might not even pass whatever the Senate gives it, all before Thursday, when the Treasury Department says the government will hit the debt ceiling. 

In sum, after a day of furious wrangling, Congress has wasted hours and hours, bringing the nation one day closer to default.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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