The vote Thursday evening on House Speaker John Boehner’s debt-ceiling plan — which was abruptly postponed a half-hour before it was set to reach the floor -- presents perhaps the biggest test to date of the Ohio Republican’s speakership.
It also represents a make-or-break moment for the House Republican whip team – the Boehner lieutenants who swing into action on key votes and coax undecided members to support the leadership’s position.
The first major test for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) whip operation came more than five months ago, when leaders sought to fast-track a measure to extend three key provisions of the Patriot Act counterterrorism surveillance law. The measure unexpectedly fell short of the two-thirds threshold necessary for passage, handing House Republican leaders an embarrassing setback barely one month into the 112th Congress.
On Thursday afternoon, as the House voted on amendments to an Interior appropriations bill ahead of the evening’s debt-limit vote, McCarthy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other members of the House Republican leadership team appeared determined not to let the Boehner debt plan suffer a similar fate.
Cantor and McCarthy roamed the House chamber for more than an hour, rounding up support for the Boehner plan through good old retail politicking, one member at a time. Cantor spent most of the hour locked in intense discussions with three different House Republican freshmen, while McCarthy hustled back and forth across the chamber and huddled with a range of members.
For the first few votes Thursday afternoon, Cantor parked himself next to freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann on the Republican side of the chamber, fourth chair from the aisle, fourth row from the front.
With his right arm around the back of Fleischmann’s seat, Cantor leaned in and gestured as he spoke to his Tennessee Republican colleague, who had publicly declared himself a “no” vote on the Boehner bill.
Fleischmann held a folder in his lap as he sat and made his case to Cantor. The conversation paused as the two got up to cast their electronic votes on an Interior amendment; then they sat back down, Cantor flung his arm back over Fleischmann’s seat and the negotiations began anew.
One row in front of Cantor and Fleischmann, Rep. Allen West – an outspoken conservative freshman from Florida and an early opponent of the Boehner plan who surprised many of his colleagues by declaring himself a “yes” vote earlier this week – was sitting alone in the seat closest to the wall when Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) approached him.
Kelly, too, had been skeptical of any plan that would fall short of the “cut, cap and balance” pledge signed by 39 House Republicans. But by Thursday morning’s Republican conference meeting, the Pennsylvania freshman had so come to embrace the Boehner proposal that he began rallying other members around the plan, handing out blue-and-orange signs with the Notre Dame football slogan, “Play Like A Champion Today.”
Kelly gave West a slap on the back and put his arm around his shoulder as the two exchanged a laugh and a few words on the House floor. A few minutes later, Kelly was at the back of the House chamber and in a conversation with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), another previously-undecided member who had declared himself a “yes” on the Boehner plan in recent days.
Cantor wrapped up his conversation with Fleischmann and then met up near the rostrum with McCarthy, who was holding a rumpled piece of paper and glancing around the chamber. After a quick conversation, Cantor sped over to a row near the center aisle, where Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a freshman member of leadership who was publicly undecided on the Boehner plan, was seated next to freshman Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.).
With his arm wrapped the back of McKinley’s aisle seat, Cantor leaned over and began making his case to Scott, who could be seen shaking his head at several times throughout the discussion.
As the whip team was busy lobbying undecided members, the dozen or so House Republicans who were already public “no” votes could be found huddling separately around the chamber. Chatting at the well were Reps. Jeff Landry (R-La.) and Steve Southerland (R-Fla.); sitting side-by-side near the center of the chamber were two of the proposal’s most vocal skeptics, Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.).
After several minutes talking with Scott – and parting with apparently no success -- Cantor met up in the aisle with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a fellow Virginia Republican, a supporter of the Boehner plan and the sponsor of a balanced budget amendment that had gained traction among many conservatives in the House.
The two saddled up to another Virginia Republican, freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith, and spoke with him for nearly a quarter of an hour, Goodlatte’s arm wrapped around the back of Griffith’s seat and Cantor’s hand resting on the seat in front.
As the end of the vote series neared, Cantor and Griffith were left one-on-one; Griffith sat with his glasses perched on his head and gestured as he spoke with Cantor, who stood, arms crossed and nodding occasionally.
McCarthy, who had been scuttling from member to member around the chamber, was now deep in conversation with Scott in the back row on the Democratic side. Scott looked straight ahead as McCarthy, hunched over, emphatically made his case.
The clock at the back of the chamber struck 3 p.m., leaving three hours remaining until the expected 6 p.m. vote. Griffith put his glasses back on and nodded to Cantor as they ended their conversation after a shared laugh.
Less than an hour later, Fleischmann had released a statement declaring that he would back the Boehner plan.
“While this bill is not perfect, it cuts spending by almost $1 trillion, does not raise taxes by one penny and requires both houses of Congress to take up a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution that will finally end our runaway spending,” Fleischmann said.
Griffith was still publicly undecided Thursday evening.
And Scott, in an appearance on Fox News an hour and a half before the slated vote, publicly announced his position -- “No.”
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