House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) strolled from the floor to his office shortly after noontime Wednesday. A cool confidence serves as Boehner's calling card. And if the Ohio Republican was nervous about Wednesday's vote to prevent a government shutdown, he certainly didn't show it as he walked through Statuary Hall and turned left at his office suite near the Rotunda.
Boehner's confidence aside, uncertainty gripped the Capitol for the better part of 24 hours as House Republicans prepared to debate a stopgap spending measure (known as a CR, short for "Continuing Resolution") and disaster aid package crafted to avert a government closure at the end of the month. The problem was that no one was quite sure where Republicans might conjure the votes to pass the bill. After all, the Republican whip operation anticipated it could lose 50 to 60 of its own members on this vote. That figure aligns with the number of defections from conservative and tea party-backed lawmakers when the House voted to prevent government closures earlier this year. 53 Republicans bolted on a March vote. The number climbed to 59 in April.
Still, the GOP deserters weren't enough to torpedo legislation designed to keep the government humming. In each case, a chunk of Democrats joined Republicans to vote yea.
But that wasn't the case Wednesday.
I expect the great majority of Democrats to be voting no on the CR today," proffered the Democrats' top vote counter, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). In particular, Hoyer and others expressed reservations about Republicans raiding a program to encourage the production of green automobiles to offset emergency funds to help recover from Hurricane Irene, wildfires and other disasters.
This was a problem. And for two days, Republican leaders demurred when asked whether they could okay this stopgap spending measure without Democratic support.
It was obvious the GOP had a problem by midday Wednesday, even if Boehner didn't tip his hand as he returned to his office after gaveling the House into session. So I sidled up to the Ohio Republican to ask if he might consider delaying the vote or even yanking the measure off the floor.
The speaker immediately scrunched his shoulders into what has become known around the corridors of Congress as the "Boehner shrug." Sometimes the "shrug" is a substitute for Boehner's reticence when asked a question he'd rather not answer. Boehner sometimes deploys the shrug if he simply doesn't know the answer. But in this instance, Boehner replied.
"Well, we'll see. We put it out there and see what happens," Boehner said.
And what happened wasn't very pretty.
The chances for a government shutdown late next week grew geometrically as the package to fund the government through mid-November failed 230 to 195.
Only six Democrats crossed the aisle to side with Republicans. 48 Republicans bolted from their party.
In many regards, Boehner's "chips-fall-where-they-may" approach is consistent with his method for running the House this year.
"Our job is not to have control over there. It's not about achieving my will," Boehner said in February when asked about his hand-off style compared to the iron fist tactics of his predecessor, current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
However, Wednesday night's failure demonstrated the limited influence Boehner and other GOP leaders wield over rank-and-file Republicans who appear hell-bent on achieving only chasms of spending cuts.
"We're disappointed. We knew that members were having trouble with it," conceded the bill's architect, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY).
The "trouble" Rogers spoke of centers around an additional $24 billion in spending included in August's debt ceiling measure. In the winter, House GOPers embraced the fiscal blueprint drafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). But the debt ceiling agreement big footed Ryan's parameters, injecting $24 billion back into the mix.
In short, anything short of the Ryan plan, if not deeper cuts, just didn't sit right with many conservatives.
"The level is far from meeting the goal we set for ourselves before coming to Washington last November," groused tea party freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). "But it's business as usual with another missed deadline and another missed opportunity."
Paul Ryan told my FOX colleague John Brandt that GOP leaders knew they didn't have the necessary votes to pass the bill. Still, Ryan says, Boehner forged ahead with the vote so the House could "work its will."
Republicans attempted to blame Democrats for Wednesday night's debacle.
"They voted to shut down the government," said Hal Rogers of all Democrats but six who voted nay.
"This bill was designed to pass with Democrat votes," said Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). "Frankly, it's shocking as many Republicans voted for it as (they) did."
Congress has vaulted from crisis to crisis throughout this year, whether it be over a government shutdown or hiking the nation's debt ceiling. Each time, Congressional leaders threaded the needle. But this time, they didn't.
At least one veteran GOP lawmaker suggested that Wednesday's defeat was part of a parliamentary high-wire act engineered by Boehner to show recalcitrant conservatives that they have to work with Democrats and not just go-it-alone.
"It's Boehner flexing his muscles," said the Republican who asked not to be identified. "He gave the conservatives all the rope they needed to hang themselves. Now Boehner can swoop in like he did on the shutdown and the debt (limit), save the day and make his point doing it."
One senior leadership aide quickly dismissed suggestions that Boehner engaged in such complex political gymnastics. Regardless, if such an effort was afoot, Boehner had the luxury of executing it this week, a full nine days before the government would actually close. Both the House and Senate aren't scheduled to be in session next week. So Cantor put lawmakers on notice that weekend sessions could be possible.
Following a vote post-mortem in Boehner's office, Cantor emerged, confident the sides could bridge the impasse.
"Suffice to say, there will not be a government shutdown. Everyone needs to relax," Cantor said.
But the leader also exuded the confidence that the House would find the votes to approve the CR and disaster aid money when asked about it at a Wednesday morning press conference.
"It is only Harry Reid that's talking about a government shutdown," Cantor said.
Reid may have been the only one talking about a government shutdown on Tuesday. The Nevada Democrat took issue with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who doubted the sides couldn't forge a deal by the end of the month.
But Wednesday was a different story.
That's because after the House's failure to approve the stopgap spending measure, almost everyone in Washington was fretting about the prospects for a government shutdown next week.
- Fox's Rich Edson contributed to this report.