WASHINGTON-The Republican establishment in the nation's capital is scrambling to salvage its debt ceiling legislation in the face of a Tea Party-fueled rank-and-file revolt.
As the nation moves closer to the White House's Aug.2 deadline to raise the nation's debt ceiling, financial markets continue to drop over concerns about Washington gridlock. But House Speaker John Boehner failed to collect enough votes Thursday for a plan to raise the spending cap while cutting about $1 trillion in federal spending.
The endgame for the debt-ceiling showdown seems a long way off.
Boehner and his GOP leadership team will try again on Friday-a third-straight day-to pass a bill that Democrats say has no chance in the Senate. Still, it is not Democrats who are giving Boehner's team problems. Instead it has been an up and down ride for Boehner and the Tea Party, and the aftermath could irreparably damage the speaker's leadership hold.
Boehner had just broken off debt ceiling talks with President Barack Obama on July 22 when Tea Party Nation Founder Judson Phillips blogged to his followers the words "Boehner's stand up moment," adding, "We need to get out and support Boehner."
Just five days later, after Boehner had introduced a bill to raise the debt ceiling that included spending cuts, no tax increases, and guaranteed a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Phillips blogged again: "John Boehner is the sugar daddy of the welfare state. It does not matter how much Boehner claims to be a conservative, he is not."
With support like that who needs enemies? In fact, during much of this internal strife over increasing the nation's debt limit, Democrats have enjoyed driving deeper the division between the Tea Party crowd and congressional Republican leaders.
"Speaker Boehner's plan is not a compromise. It was written for the Tea Party, not the American people," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who must not be a reader of Phillips' blog.
Boehner's plan achieved some victories-chiefly tying, for the first time ever, future increases in the debt limit directly to spending cuts. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican's most credible voice on fiscal discipline, supported it. But the Tea Party remained unimpressed with its $1.8 trillion in spending cuts. They wanted more.
At a sparsely attended Tea Party rally on the grounds of Capitol Hill Wednesday, speaker after speaker implored Boehner to "hold the line," meaning no compromise. "That is insignificant and not meaningful reform," Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party freshman Republican from Kentucky, told the crowd.
A man dressed as Captain America, hefting a jumbo-sized American flag, and another as George Washington worked the crowd. Earlier in the day, the Tea Party Patriots released a poll saying that 74.1 percent of group members favored or were leaning toward a new House speaker.
Even usually lockstep conservative groups are divided: Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported Boehner while the Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged conservatives to oppose Boehner's plan.
"I can't do this job unless you're behind me," Boehner said to his rank-and-file members at the height of the uprising. This plea initially had a positive effect: Throughout Thursday, more and more undecided representatives began to offer public support for the bill. But as the day wore on the momentum halted as other lawmakers resisted, including the entire South Carolina delegation to the House. By late Thursday night, Boehner called off a vote that was supposed to happen hours earlier.
Lost in the conservative revolt is the fact that even Reid's alternative debt ceiling plan, universally opposed by Republicans for other reasons, does not use tax increases to decrease deficits. This is a huge victory for conservatives.
Still, the sticking point for many of the 87 largely Tea Party-backed new Republican members of House is a guarantee that the balanced budget amendment proposal (the "crown jewel" of their plan according to one House freshman) not only gets a vote but also passes Congress and heads to the states for final approval.
By Wednesday, some veteran Republicans had had enough. Sen. John McCain, already not a likely candidate for any Tea Party rally, began by calling the demand foolish. "That is worse then foolish. That's deceiving," he said on the Senate floor. "It's unfair. It's bizarre."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also reached out to his beleaguered House counterpart by explaining the political realities. "We cannot get a perfect solution, from my point of view, controlling only the House of Representatives," said McConnell, who remains fearful that Republicans will shoulder the bulk of the blame if calamity follows any default. The global stock markets dipped daily over fears of a deadlocked Congress. "We know we can't get a result without something that can pass a Republican House, a Democratic Senate and be signed by a Democratic president," McConnell added.
The Tea Party crowd and the influx of Tea Party lawmakers deserve credit for changing the debate in Washington. Never before has a debt ceiling increase caused such a brouhaha. Veteran lawmakers from both parties are at least willing to admit that Washington suffers from an acute spending addiction.
But changing the debate is not the same as having the power to pass a bill. The next step in the cure, implementing significant structural changes in the way Washington can spend taxpayer dollars, will require more than the combined appearance of Captain America and George Washington. It demands more conservative victories in November 2012.
Christina Latchford, a 56-year-old from Tampa, Fla., who canceled her flight home from vacation after hearing about the Wednesday's rally, senses this. "We don't have a full back bone yet," she said of conservative lawmakers. She added that the cancellation fees she incurred were worth every penny because "we all have to make sacrifices. This country is a gift we can't lose."