The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP leaders will bring up ‘clean’ debt ceiling bill

Some conservative members of Congress claimed raising the debt ceiling last fall was a non-issue, but would still not compromise. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

House Republican leaders told members Tuesday morning that it is clear their latest attempt at seeking a concession in the debt ceiling debate will not attract enough support, so they will be bringing up a "clean" debt limit bill, according to several GOP people inside their Tuesday morning huddle.

The vote is scheduled for Tuesday night to avoid the snowstorm, expected to hit the District on Wednesday, according to forecasters.

The move would likely avert a last-minute showdown over the debt ceiling -- provided Republicans can find enough votes to pass the bill. People close to the process told The Washington Post that dozens of House Republicans have privately told the leadership Tuesday afternoon that they're willing to back the clean bill with Boehner. House GOP leaders expect the vote to pass Tuesday night, with sufficient bipartisan support.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has given Congress a Feb. 27 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, but recent debates have all gone down to the wire, with Republicans demanding spending cuts or other concessions.

The latest attempt at a concession by House GOP leaders was to restore the recently reduced cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for military members. It followed a series of similar proposals that couldn't find consensus.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made clear the GOP would provide the requisite number of Republican votes for the "clean" measure but that Democrats will be expected to carry the vote.

Boehner made the announcement in the Tuesday morning meeting at the Republican National Committee, and then, according to a person in the meeting, left the room without taking any questions from his rank and file.

The decision to jettison the original plan came after a contentious Monday night meeting in the Capitol basement, according to several lawmakers and senior aides present in the room.

According to participants, several House Republicans who are leaving to run for Senate seats were particularly upset with the option that Boehner’s leadership team had presented them with, particularly Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a Bronze Star Medal winner for his service in the Army infantry in Afghanistan. Cotton, who is in a neck-and-neck race with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), is a staunch fiscal conservative who opposes raises the debt ceiling but did not want to cast a vote that would be deemed anti-military if he opposed the Boehner plan linking the military pension issue to the debt ceiling hike.

After Cotton objected to the plan Monday, Boehner forcefully pushed back against the opponents by explaining these are the bad choices they are left with when not enough members rally together to get to the majority just among Republicans. As one lawmaker described it, “Boehner reacted strongly several times.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a staunch conservative, told reporters after the Monday meeting that the leadership drove home the message that there were no options on the table that had come close to getting the bare majority – usually 218 votes if all members are present – on their side and were left to make offers that might get Democratic votes. “They couldn’t get to 218 on anything,” Salmon said.

Boehner’s dark humor showed as he entered the room for his news conference. “Happy, happy, happy,” he mused to reporters as he strolled toward the podium. Ten minutes later, as he left the building, he began to sing softly to himself as he stepped outside.

“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a,” he said. “Plenty of sunshine coming my way.”

News of the GOP’s plans were welcomed by House Democrats, whose leaders first learned about the proposal Monday evening, according to senior aides.

Entering her weekly caucus meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that a “clean” increase of the nation’s borrowing limit is “the smart thing to do,” but declined to say whether she’d be able to deliver the votes needed to ensure passage of the plan.

But inside the meeting, Pelosi and her lieutenants instructed rank-and-file members, “don’t gloat, take it in stride and hang together,” according to a lawmaker who was in the room.

Later, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) couldn’t guarantee that all 200 Democrats would help approve the debt limit increase, telling reporters that “north of 180” Democrats would support the move.

By that count, Republicans would need to find roughly 30 to 40 votes to help pass the measure, far more than the 16 to 20 votes that some GOP aides suggest may be all the support they’ll be able to garner for the proposal among Republicans.

“Isn’t that pathetic that they can only get 18 votes to ensure that their nation can pay its bills?” Hoyer said of Republicans at his weekly meeting with reporters. Boehner “is the leader of his party. He ought to be doggone responsible” and get enough votes to ensure passage, Hoyer said later, pounding a conference table for emphasis.

Other Democratic leaders agreed.

“This feels like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ totally upside down,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). “The majority is supposed to be the party that moves it forward because they run the ship.”

“If Republicans shirk their responsibility as the majority party in the House of Representatives, we’re ready to be responsible, we’re ready to lead,” he added.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.