Gentle reader, you don't know this yet, but I'm a little freaked out over the looming crisis to raise the national debt limit. After attending an hour-long meeting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) held with columnists and commentators, my disquiet continues to grow. While she didn't come right out and say it, I was left with the distinct impression that the former speaker of the House didn’t have much confidence that the new speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has enough control over his majority to deliver the votes needed to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States.
Plenty of ink and pixels have been used to chronicle Boehner's problems dealing with his Tea Party-fueled majority. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Minority Whip, put it best: “Boehner has a tiger by the tail. The problem with riding the tiger is you may end up inside it.”
I just hope feeding time doesn't come when Boehner will have to round up the votes to raise the national debt ceiling. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the U.S. will hit its $14.29 trillion debt limit between March 31 and May 16. To not raise the legal debt limit would have catastrophic economic impacts that would make the weeks that followed Sept. 14, 2008, look like child’s play.
Discussing this week's passage of a new continuing resolution, Pelosi observed that, in the vote, freshmen Tea Party Republicans were more interested in budget cuts while more senior GOPers were interested in policy-driven riders to legislation. And then she zeroed in on the meaning of a government shutdown. "Upon reflection...[it doesn't matter what reason they give for voting against the CR]....there is only one question at the end of the day: Do you understand how serious it is to shut down government?" Pelosi later added, "I just think it would be a failure if we have a shutdown of the government."
So, I asked Pelosi, "Would you describe it as a failure if debt ceiling were not raised? And how confident are you that Speaker Boehner will be able to corral the votes to actually lift the debt ceiling?"
"You gotta ask him," she said. "You have to ask him. You know me; I'm a vote-counter. We never lost a vote. You understand. We never lost a vote. I never depended upon Republican votes, either. So, you're going to have to ask him about the Republican votes. I just don't know."
Did you catch that? "I'm a vote-counter. We never lost a vote." A not-so-subtle dig at Boehner's early missteps in bringing bills to the floor that went down in defeat. A dig that raises questions whether the debt limit measure would even pass when Boehner brings it to the floor. How about "I've never depended upon Republican votes, either"? As we all know now, Boehner wouldn't have gotten the continuing resolution passed without Democratic votes. And, as Ezra Klein points out, a continuing reliance on Democrats to get legislation through the House will make the pickle Boehner is in with his own conference that much worse.
But Pelosi went on to compliment Boehner, saying, "I think the speaker has made some very responsible statements about the debt ceiling that we cannot let it go...." That's when I interrupted the minority leader. "But...do you think just politically speaking that the other side, that the speaker has the votes to lift the debt ceiling?"
"But, Jonathan, I've been watching votes, but there are 80-some members who have given them the majority, and I have no idea how those people will vote," she said. "But I hope that they will vote in a responsible way and the speaker has made responsible statements about the debt ceiling, and I respect that."
By her own admission, Pelosi is a vote-counter. She knows who's voting yea or nay and why. And as speaker, she never did anything unless she was reasonably assured of knowing what the outcome would be. As I mentioned earlier, Pelosi has been paying close attention to how the new majority voted on the two continuing resolutions. Her observation that "new members [are] interested in cuts and more senior members [are] interested in riders" is a warning to me that when Congress votes on raising the debt ceiling, we might be in for a world of hurt.