Today may be the biggest day in the political career of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
If Boehner suppresses an insurrection among rank-and-file House Republicans and cajoles them to vote for his debt ceiling bill, the speaker will have attained his greatest legislative achievement yet.
And he'll get another crack to top even that in averting a federal default in just a few days.
But if Boehner is unable to coax just the right number of his feisty Republican colleagues to vote for his package, the Ohio Republican will have suffered a bruising body blow. For one, a failure of Boehner's bill could tilt the nation even closer to a default next week. However, such a catastrophe on the House floor could decree specific consequences for Boehner.
It's a double-whammy. Conservatives and tea party loyalists are already disappointed the speaker didn't stick with the more-fiscally stringent Cut, Cap and Balance legislation as the solution to the debt ceiling crisis. And his advocacy of a failed bill which was intended to broker compromise with the Democratically-controlled Senate could further roil factions already suspect of Boehner.
Boehner saw this perfect storm churning off the Capitol Hill coast Tuesday night and sounded the klaxons. Still lacking the necessary votes to pass the bill, Boehner scrapped consideration for a day and demanded a partial re-write. GOP leaders hoped tweaks would secure deeper cuts and in turn impress skeptical Republicans. Plus, taking an extra day bought Boehner's whip team more time to massage leery lawmakers and sell them on the merits of the legislation.
When Boehner assumed the Speaker's gavel in January, he contrasted his laid-back style with that of other political overlords who consolidated power and ruled the House with an iron fist. No one would ever mistake John Boehner style for the straight-arm tactics deployed by former Speakers Thomas Reed, Joe Cannon, Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi.
"As the chamber closest to the people, the House works best when it is allowed to work its will," Boehner said on January 3.
But by Wednesday morning, Boehner sounded a lot more like "The Hammer," former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). At a closed door session, Boehner exhorted his colleagues to "get your ass in line" behind his bill.
There are two vacancies in the House. So that means Boehner needs 217 votes to pass his bill. With 240 Republicans, Boehner can only lose 23 of his own.
Five conservative Democrats voted for Cut, Cap and Balance last week. But multiple sources doubt that any Democrats will vote for Boehner's measure. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) was among the five Democratic yeas then. But in a press release, Shuler blasted Boehner's legislation as "fiscally irresponsible."
So with no help from the Democrats, it's up to Boehner and the rest of the GOP brass to deliver.
Republicans anticipate anywhere from 15 to a high-water mark of 30 Republican noes on the Boehner plan. If the legislation appears doomed during the vote, expect the number of GOP nays to balloon. These would be lawmakers who were reluctant of a yea vote from the start. However, they were willing to take one for the team. If the bill is in trouble, watch for them to switch their votes to no.
There are several "hard" noes on the board. Presidential contenders and Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Ron Paul (R-TX) oppose the bill. They're followed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who heads the Republican Study Committee, the bloc of nearly 180 of the most-conservative members in the House. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is the main sponsor of Cut, Cap and Balance and is a no. So are Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Tom Graves (R-GA). Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) described himself as a "beaten-up no" after the GOP whip operation worked him over for a few rounds. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) remains a no as he even authored a bill not to increase the debt ceiling, but lower it.
An interesting contingency is now emerging as a pathway to secure perhaps a dozen House Republicans. On Wednesday evening, the House Rules Committee crafted its "rule" to govern floor debate on the Boehner bill Thursday. But nestled in the rule is a proviso that enables the House to bring up a balanced budget amendment at virtually any time between now and Sunday.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), a former member of the House GOP leadership team and now an Indiana gubernatorial candidate, pushed Boehner & company to consider a straight balanced budget amendment on the floor soon to court their support.
Republicans might not have the votes yet. But they're in better shape than they were Tuesday night when the GOP scrapped the plan to bring the package up on Wednesday.
"We're getting there," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as he scurried into his office Wednesday afternoon.
Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-FL) expressed even more confidence.
"I would almost put my retirement check on it," West said when asked if the GOP had the votes.
West's freshman classmate, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) is a case study in the success of the Republican whip operation.
"I've moved from lean no to undecided to lean yes," bragged Farenthold as he emerged from a closed door Republican Conference session. "We've got to take what we can get from the Democrat White House and the Democrat Senate."
Few conservative freshmen lawmakers have exhibited doses of political pragmatism as strong as Farenthold, who says he preferred Cut, Cap and Balance. But knew it couldn't get through the Senate.
"You've got to claim a win when you can claim a win," Farenthold said.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) is another freshman who jumped on board with the Boehner bill.
"It's not perfect. It's maybe 70 percent of what we want," Ellmers said. "But we've got to move forward. The August 2 deadline is coming up. We want a solution before we get too close."
They're already pretty close. Which leaves little room for error Thursday.
The first potential trip wire for the bill is the vote on the "rule." This is what sets the parameters for debating the legislation. The House is expected to begin debating the "rule" in early afternoon, followed by a vote. It's this simple: if the House can't okay the rule dictating how they'll handle the debate on the floor, it can't skip to the underlying bills.
Votes for rules on such controversial measures as this one are always perilous. Sometimes people vote against a rule just to build some distance between them and the leadership. Others vote yes even if they intend to oppose the actual legislation.
The bottom line is to watch this vote. If the rule blows up, this legislation is in big trouble and never goes to the floor.
Also note that Wall Street should be open for trading during this time. A rule collapse could trigger a selloff in New York.
But if the House approves the rule, then it advances to the actual legislation.
The Rules Committee has carved out two hours of debate for the Boehner bill. The chairs and ranking members of the Ways and Means and Budget panels will control the time.
It's likely they'll finish debate in late afternoon or early evening. The House will conduct a final, up-or-down vote on the package then. And that's when we'll learn if Boehner can keep 23 GOPers from walking.
There have been numerous crucial votes of this magnitude over the past few years. A vote in April to keep the government open was important. But everyone knew they had the votes to pass that package. The health care reform bill votes were close in November, 2009 and March, 2010. But the Democrats had the votes going in.
This is different because a federal default swings in the balance. This makes it the biggest vote in Congress since the two TARP roll calls nearly three years ago.
During an interview with FOX's Jenna Lee yesterday, Chief Deputy Whip Pete Roskam (R-IL) indicated that Republicans would have the votes "when push came to shove."
There's a lot of pressure on John Boehner.
On Monday night, running on adrenalin from giving a nationally-televised rebuttal to President Obama, Boehner strolled through the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor and chortled about the events of the evening.
"I didn't sign up for going mano-a-mano with the President of the United States," Boehner said.
Perhaps not. And at the end of Thursday's vote, we'll know whether Boehner had to go mano-a-mano with rank-and-file Republicans to achieve a legislative victory.