Morgan Griffith struggles with debt limit vote


FILE- In January, when Congressman-elect Morgan Griffith joined the huge Republican freshman class that ended four years of Democratic rule in the U.S. House, Capitol Hill will take on an earnest, quirky small-town lawyer who is a wonkish fanatic about parliamentary protocol and who laughs off his own nerdiness. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) (Steve Helber/AP)

Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) should have been an easier yes for House Speaker John A. Boehner. The difficulty it took to get the Virginia freshman to vote for the speaker’s debt ceiling proposal Friday is emblematic of Boehner’s problems both as a salesman and a leader of a fractious GOP caucus. And it portends more trouble ahead.

If anyone could understand Boehner’s pain, it should be Griffith — who knows what it’s like to lead a legislative chamber, to round up votes for tough measures, to face down a Democratic executive. For a decade, Griffith served as majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, battling two Democratic governors while leading a Republican majority.

One of those he once led was then-Del. Eric Cantor (R), now the majority leader of the U.S. House.

And so Griffith, who was once the majority leader’s majority leader, had great empathy when Cantor sidled up to him on the floor of the House on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’d like to have your vote on this,” Cantor said. Griffith was not persuaded.

The indecision of one freshman who understands better than most why his leaders need his vote helps explain why, one day later, Boehner and Cantor had failed to muster the GOP votes needed to free the plan from the House.

After a day of high-drama cajoling of members like Griffith, House GOP leaders postponed a vote on the measure scheduled for Thursday night. On Friday, they revised the measure and hoped it could finally win passage in the afternoon.

This month, Griffith voted against a popular Republican measure known as “cut, cap and balance,” which would have required a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling. He thought the measure did not require spending cuts that were deep enough.

And so he struggled to decide on the Boehner proposal. “Does this live up to my commitment to voters in my district to make sure that we shake things up in Washington and change the way Washington looks at things and start cutting this debt and deficits we have?” he asked. “In the end, this bill doesn’t do it. But is it enough that I can vote for it, feel I’ve lived up to my commitment to my constituents and taken a step in the right direction?”

He couldn’t answer.

All day Thursday, he called supporters back home, activists who had helped get him elected. Their opinions were split.

“Did you see the governor supports it?” he asked, scrolling through messages on his Droid phone.

Indeed, a little while later, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) got behind the Boehner plan.

“Speaker Boehner’s bill cuts spending, doesn’t raise taxes and ensures that we do not default on our debt,” McDonnell wrote. “I urge the members of Congress, including Virginia’s delegation, to vote in support of this measure.”

“This is not fun,” Griffith said. “I’d greatly prefer to be at ‘no,’ because I don’t think it goes far enough.”

“That being said, I’m trying to do what, in the long run, makes the best sense for the United States and the 9th District of Virginia, and I may find that that may be for me to compromise and accept the Boehner plan,” he said.

Early Thursday afternoon, Cantor and fellow Virginian Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) found Griffith again on the House floor.

Goodlatte wrapped his arm around the back of Griffith’s seat and Cantor’s hand rested on the front.

Finally, Goodlatte wandered away and Cantor and Griffith were left alone. Griffith sat with his glasses perched on top of his forehead. Griffith gestured as he spoke, as Cantor stood, arms crossed and nodding.

Afterward, Griffith said that Cantor reminded him of their times together in Richmond. The majority leader tried to explain, again, why he thought the bill was the best option.

Finally, he put his hand on Griffith’s arm.

“Do I need to bug you some more later?” Cantor asked.

“Yeah. Bug me some more later,” Griffith responded. They both grinned.

Friday, House leaders agreed to insert a requirement into the Boehner bill stating that a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution pass the Congress before the debt ceiling could be raised again in six months, a provision that made an already distasteful bill more unpalatable in the Senate.

Griffith said the changes helped. But they didn’t seal his vote. Still, he remained concerned that Boehner’s proposal would not cut deeply enough from the deficit.

“I’m leaning towards it, even though it has an odor about it,” he said. “I’m inching towards it. But in all fairness, I could get to the floor and decide, to heck with it. It’s not enough.”

In the end, 22 Republicans voted against Boehner’s bill. But Griffith was not among them: He voted yes, helping to pass the bill.

Now the bill heads to the Senate, where it is likely to be amended, and Griffith warned he’s unlikely to be able to vote yes again.

“I will always read it and take a look,” he said. “But it would be very difficult for me to compromise farther.”

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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