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House GOP punts to Senate as default looms

Speaker House John Boehner R-Ohio with House House GOP leaders speaks with reporters following Republican strategy sessiCapitol WashingtTuesday Oct. 15

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, with House House GOP leaders, speaks with reporters following a Republican strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Behind Speaker Boehner are House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the Republican Conference chair. House GOP leaders Tuesday floated a plan to fellow Republicans to counter an emerging Senate deal to reopen the government and forestall an economy-rattling default on U.S. obligations. But the plan got mixed reviews from the rank and file and it was not clear whether it could pass the chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Updated: October 16, 2013 9:55AM



WASHINGTON — With the first default in U.S. history hours away, House Republican leaders failed Tuesday to muster support within their own splintered ranks to raise the debt ceiling and reopen all of the federal government, throwing the ball back into the Senate court, where leaders were nearing agreement on a bipartisan deal.

The GOP House meltdown means Wednesday’s drama starts in the Democrat-run Senate, with legislation facing the formidable hurdle of having little time left to sprint through both chambers to beat the Thursday debt ceiling deadline.

The uncertainty triggered a warning from Fitch Ratings that it could cut the U.S. top AAA credit rating. The ratings agency offered a harsh assessment of the dilly-dallying in Congress: “The prolonged negotiations over raising the debt ceiling . . . risks undermining confidence in the role of the U.S. dollar as the preeminent global reserve currency, by casting doubt over the full faith and credit of the U.S.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and their staffs were working late Tuesday on a bipartisan measure that faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled House.

Late Tuesday — Day 15 of the partial federal shutdown — Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate leader, told reporters, “They’re still working out the details between Senators McConnell and Reid, and we’re close.”

After House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) yanked a GOP-drafted measure on Tuesday night — and with no Plan B — his spokesman Michael Steel told reporters outside his office in the Capitol, “The House has no votes scheduled for this evening and I don’t know what happens next.”

Chaos reigned throughout the Capitol most of Tuesday, as Boehner struggled but could not find a legislative solution to satisfy his most conservative members, many allied with the Tea Party movement.

The Senate, which Monday had a good start on forging a bipartisan pact, hit the pause button on Tuesday when it became clear that lawmakers had to first learn what could pass the House.

The answer turned out to be nothing.

That’s because Boehner will not allow a vote on a measure that does not have the support of the majority of his 232 House GOP colleagues. Boehner will not allow an up-or-down vote on measures to lift the debt ceiling and fund government because they would likely get the 217 votes needed to pass, mainly with the votes of 200 Democrats.

The GOP House package included provisions rejected by the White House and House Democrats, making it a non-starter, even if Boehner had somehow found the votes for it to pass.

A Tea Party-inspired drive to defund, delay or derail Obamacare devolved by Tuesday to a GOP bid to strip the federal government employer contribution to the health insurance premiums of members of Congress; the president; vice president, and White House political appointees. Under Obamacare, lawmakers would have to purchase their health insurance from the exchange run by the District of Columbia.

To gain more support from the far right, by the end of the day the ante was raised to include congressional staffers on the list of targets to lose their employer-paid health benefits.

On the main issues, the GOP House proposal would extend the debt ceiling through Feb. 7 and bankroll all of the federal government until Dec. 15 — dates that tracked the maturing Senate plans.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), following a lunch meeting of GOP senators, told reporters, “I cannot stress to you how important it is for the country, and quite frankly the Republican Party, for the House to try to garner 218 votes, 218 votes — hopefully bipartisan — with a plan to reopen the government and to lift the debt ceiling.”

A turning point on Tuesday afternoon came after Heritage Action, the political-action arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, sent out an alert urging lawmakers to vote no on the deal Boehner put together.

“Key Vote: ‘NO’ on House Spending and Debt Deal” Heritage Action sent out via Twitter, warning the vote would be included in its legislative scorecard.

“Unfortunately, the proposed deal will do nothing to stop Obamacare’s massive new entitlements from taking root — radically changing the nature of American health care,” Heritage Action said.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said of the inability of Boehner to get a measure to the floor: “The lesson today is you can’t make something conservative enough for them.”

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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