I made a big mistake yesterday. I was under the misapprehension that John Boehner could count. I humbly apologize. It won’t happen again.

As it turns out, he could not count to 216, and has to set about finding a bill that will get him there. I’m not sure it exists.

One after another, recalcitrant Republicans were marched into Mr. Boehner’s office, where he begged, implored and, when that failed, berated them in a desperate effort to win support for his proposal to resolve the debt crisis.

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House whip, bought a pile of pizzas, and asked those members who were against the bill to come on over for a slice, and some haranguing.

The speaker was forced to delay the vote on Thursday on his debt ceiling bill, when it became clear that his Republican members were not going to put him over the top. Some of those who left Mr. Boehner’s office looked stricken, but said they were unyielding. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas emerged, saying he was “a bloody, beaten-down no.”

The whole display left me longing for the crisp professionalism of a Tom DeLay. Although, it should be noted that Boehner doesn’t have a tool that DeLay would employ frequently – bribery. The House ban on earmarks – at least public ones – has left the leadership with significantly less sweeteners when hunting for votes.

Late last night the House Rules Committee voted to basically open the previously closed rule to the leadership, giving them the ability to amend the Boehner plan and vote on it without having to go back to the Committee. So now they at least can shift the legislation to please their recalcitrant lawmakers. Apparently one sticking point was the fact that the bill “spends” $17 billion on Pell grants over the next three years (to maintain the $5,500 benefit in the program). I put “spends” in quotes because that policy is tied to changes in the student loan program that save $22 billion, meaning that the overall effect is a deficit reduction of $5 billion. I’d be willing to bet that the Pell grant spending gets yanked. The South Carolina delegation is also claiming they want a vote to nullify the NLRB decision on Boeing as a condition of their support. It’s really a free-for-all. Who knows what riders could be included?

But will that be enough? There are at least 26 no votes, according to Think Progress, and not one Democrat will be giving their vote to help. That would leave Boehner just two votes short, agonizingly close but not over the top. But there are also several undecideds and lean-nos in there as well. The LA Times claims that Boehner is eight votes short.

On the politics, this is a huge setback for Boehner, showing that his leadership is tenuous at best. The debate over the debt limit, while from a policy standpoint consistently moving toward the Republicans, has truly hurt the GOP politically. And this display of incompetence last night only cements that. Maybe Boehner will decide he doesn’t want to go through this again in six months.

The policy side is arguably worse. Boehner’s tweaks to the bill to curry favor with his tea party base in the House only move the bill further away from the Reid plan. Reid, Mitch McConnell and Vice President Biden are apparently negotiating something that can get bipartisan support in the Senate and support, with substantial numbers of Democrats, in the House. But there’s no guarantee Boehner will take it. It’s Friday before a default on payment obligations on Tuesday and he’s still making changes to his destined-to-fail-in-the-Senate bill. The short-term credit markets are now starting to take a hit. Banks and other firms have withdrawn $37.5 billion from money market funds that invest in Treasuries. This is the start of a boulder running downhill.

Maybe Peter Welch’s clean debt limit bill, now up to 138 cosponsors, will get some traction. It certainly should, just to end the great stain this debate has placed upon the American psyche.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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