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John Boehner faces uphill fight to pass his debt plan

John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is followed by reporters after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2011. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The good news for House Speaker John Boehner and House GOP leadership is that only a handful of members have come forward saying they absolutely will not vote for the new debt reduction plan. Most members said Monday that they are waiting to comb through the legislative details before making a final judgment.

But from talking to members, the freshmen and fiscal conservatives have three major concerns with Boehner's plan to give the president a debt limit increase in two phases. Around $1 trillion now and another $1.5 trillion after Congress passes a package of bigger cuts at the end of this year. They want a balanced budget amendment, they don't trust that the Joint Committee will effectively slash spending and they see the immediate spending cuts -- just $24 billion in FY 2012 -- as too low.

The first concern is that members do not want to wait until the fall to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the constitution. Their preferred legislation, Cut, Cap and Balance, would make the debt limit increase contingent on Congress sending balanced budget amendment to the states. So not only would there need to be a vote, it would need to get the 2/3 in both the House and Senate to be sent to the states.

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Boehner's plan, as it stands now, only requires that Congress vote on a balanced budget amendment in the fall. It does not have to pass. It just has to come up in both chambers for a vote. Senior GOP aides said that this will give members time to mount a public campaign to rally support around a balanced budget amendment so that it could actually pass.

But 39 House GOP members signed a pledge that they would not raise the debt ceiling without sending a balanced budget amendment to the constitution to the states. And Boehner can only afford to lose 23 Republicans if he has to pass the measure on a party line vote. He may pick up some votes from the 25 fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, but just 5 crossed the line last week to support Cut, Cap and Balance.

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One option House leaders are considering to try to bring members around would make passage of the debt limit plan contingent on both the House and Senate taking up a balanced budget amendment as early as this week. One leadership aide said that it would give members the option of voting to support the balanced budget amendment. If that failed, then leaders would know which members to target to try to drum up support when a vote happens again in the fall. Leadership would have to choose among competing balanced budget proposals, however, which could backfire on Republican leaders trying to unify the conference.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who signed onto the pledge and sponsored the Cut, Cap and Balance Bill said that a simple vote on a balanced budget amendment is not enough for him.

"I'm as no as you can possibly be, but I still hold out hope that Cut, Cap and Balance could lead to something productive" he said. "I mean, I did something I didn't think I'd ever do and that is vote to raise the debt ceiling. Totally contingent upon a balanced budget amendment being sent to the states."

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The second issue that's been raised by fewer members, but is full of landmines, is the joint committee that Boehner's bill would create. Senior GOP leadership aides described it as a 12-member committee, equally divided between the parties from both the House and Senate. It would have broad jurisdiction over the next six months or so to devise a plan to further reduce the deficit. They could tackle tax and entitlement reforms and pass a package with a simple majority of the 12 members. A package with at least $1.6 trillion in savings would then be sent to the House and Senate for an up or down vote.

Tea Party freshman Rep. Tim Huelskam, R-Kan., put out a statement slamming the plan.

"If past is prologue, after 17 deficit reduction commissions since 1982, then we can anticipate these newly-promised cuts will be unlikely to materialize," he said.

Other members worry that the committee could embrace tax increases given there is no language in the Boehner plan explicitly barring that from happening. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said there was some comfort in knowing that "if it's tax increases and it comes back towards this House this House still has to approve it so it's not this joint commission working on its own and they become force of law."

The third concern among members, and the one that leadership will likely have to work hardest to overcome, is that the Boehner plan does not do enough to cut spending immediately according to members. It would cut $24 billion in the next fiscal year in non-defense discretionary spending and then cap spending over the next ten years.

"I think you have to have real spending cuts this year" said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "It can't be in the out years. There has to be substantial progress this year."

Barton also signed the pledge and in addition to higher spending cuts in the near-term, he wants a chance to vote on a balanced budget amendment. Despite those concerns, he said he is open to the Boehner plan.

"Give the Speaker credit for putting something out there that's substantive when the President is still talking sound bites." Barton said.

A Republican leadership aide said that the $24 trillion in savings would look a lot bigger if they hadn't already slashed spending this year as part of this year's budget bill. But expect to start hearing members compare the savings in FY 2012 to what President Obama actually proposed to spend which will make the savings look larger.

Boehner and his leadership team will have a short period of time to ease members concerns before the package is expected to come to the floor on Wednesday. One leadership aide was confident that if they can get the votes to pass the Boehner plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan would not have a chance. If the House passes the measure "the Senate will pass it and the President will sign it" the aide said.

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