With time running out on the nation's three-dimensional game of debt-ceiling chess, most House Republicans are resigned to accepting Speaker John Boehner's bill, even as they have no greater clarity yet on how the drama will play out.
With the bill expected to reach the floor for a vote on Thursday, Boehner confidantes were exuding certainty that fewer than 23 House Republicans would vote against it-a protest that would require Democratic support to overcome and could sink the measure.
So intense was the vote-counting that Boehner on Tuesday convened a rare meeting of his "Team Boehner" of 20 favorite members and asked them to personally reach out to holdouts.
Overall, Boehner said his two-step bill would raise the nation's debt ceiling by at least $2.5 trillion, to be matched by more than that amount in spending cuts over 10 years.
On Wednesday night, the Congressional Budget Office said revisions made to the first part of Boehner's plan would now bring $915 billion in savings over the next decade. Boehner aides were forced to rework that part when the CBO reported on Tuesday that it would cut just $850 billion. Boehner's bill also calls for the creation of a bipartisan panel of lawmakers to recommend up to $1.8 billion in additional cuts through 2021.
There is wide anticipation the bill will pass on Thursday. But for most House Republicans, that's when the picture gets murky. Most anticipate-perhaps too hopefully-that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will feel pressure to take up Boehner's bill as is, given next Tuesday's deadline to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Whether that pressure was relieved by reports on Wednesday that the federal government may have enough cash on hand to pay its debts until August 10 is uncertain. The White House is insisting that August 2 is the deadline and there's no telling how the markets will react. The Dow Jones industrial average fell close to 200 points on Wednesday.
Reid sought Wednesday to knock down House GOP claims that they can force him into a take-it-or-leave-it vote on Boehner's bill.
"Don't anyone ever think that we'll be left only with the Boehner plan," Reid said as his own efforts to find a compromise continued through the day. On Wednesday evening, all 53 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus signed a letter saying that they wouldn't back Boehner's bill.
One issue is whether Reid should significantly amend the Boehner bill, or move his own bill offering $2.7 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years and send that back over to the House. House Republicans didn't want to think about that, and there were several members who warned that a third, unwanted, option would come into play-default.
"There's only three choices. Everybody has a lot of great ideas. It's like serving with 240 high school class presidents," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio. "But we're past that now. We're down to three choices. And we got to pick one."
For Boehner, that's essentially what he said during a closed-door conference with reluctant House Republicans to convince them to get behind his bill, and then send it over to the Senate.
During an interview later in the day on the radio show of conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, Boehner acknowledged he ordered lawmakers to "get your ass in line" behind his debt plan.
The tough-talk session also was colored by some tense back-and-forth against staffers of the mostly conservative Republican Study Committee led by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for an e-mail effort against Boehner's plan. The RSC later issued a public apology for the lobbying attack against some fellow Republicans.
By the meeting's end, according to several accounts, LaTourette said it had become "a little bit like an altar call." He said members "stood up as previously undecided, but [said] now they've come to the Lord."
Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said the movement in favor of the bill was such that he would "bet my retirement check" on its passing.
The prospect of passing Boehner's bill was also depicted to members in recent days as a win for all of them-for reasons outside of the deficit-reduction battle.
LaTourette said if his own conference rejects the plan, Boehner would be weakened for the rest of the session.
"We don't have a president. John Boehner is the only national Republican leader standing. So if he's diminished, the party's diminished," he said.
But there are still more than a dozen hold-outs who plan to vote against the Boehner bill, according to most counts.
One of them is Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who explained, "It's up to each individual to decide what's best and they vote that way.… And I will not vote to raise the debt ceiling-period."