“ ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ ” chuckled prospective House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., without hesitation when asked which Led Zeppelin song was appropriate for the events of Tuesday night at the Capitol.
Ryan had just appeared before his Republican colleagues to declare he would stand for House speaker if he could “truly be a unifying figure.”
Ryan then met with the press corps at a rare nocturnal news conference and strolled back through the tunnel linking the Capitol with the Cannon House Office Building across the street.
On many occasions, Ryan walks around the Capitol complex, ivory earbud wires linked to his iPod, cranking Led Zeppelin, one of his favorite bands.
Ryan usually makes these treks alone. But this time, he made the journey protected by three U.S. Capitol Police officers and pursued by a horde of reporters and photographers. Perhaps mindful that it might not look speaker-esque, he ditched the earphones for this walk.
Ryan couldn’t have tapped a more appropriate Zeppelin tune than “When the Levy Breaks” -- his personal breakwater against pursuing the speakership having finally cracked due to a barrage of entreaties from Republican colleagues.
But Ryan knows all too well that Capitol Hill’s dike is on the verge of bursting as well. A political and legislative surge is now lapping up against Ryan on either side of the House vote to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
If not handled correctly, this torrent threatens to suck Ryan and congressional Republicans into violent undertow -- maybe even before he gets started.
The least-reported story in America now is perhaps the government’s collision course with a Nov. 3 deadline to hike the federal debt ceiling. The debt limit is the maximum balance the federal government can carry at any one time, currently around $18.1 trillion.
Congress and the Obama administration ran an absolute fire drill on this issue during the summer of 2011 as they tried to clear a path to raise the debt ceiling.
Most calisthenics that summer focused on negotiations between President Obama and Boehner to simultaneously raise the debt ceiling and forge a so-called “grand bargain” to slash spending and alter the government’s cataclysmic fiscal trajectory.
Those efforts failed. In the end, Congress barely managed to raise the ceiling. The uncertainty of the exercise forced Standard & Poor’s to take the extraordinary step of downgrading the credit worthiness of the United States of America.
Few people on Capitol Hill possessed the bandwidth to notice a startling statement by the Treasury Department on Thursday morning.
Many were focused on a decision late Wednesday night by the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus to “support” Ryan for speaker.
That meant Ryan had likely marshaled the necessary votes to win the speakership. In addition, Hillary Clinton’s dramatic, 11-hour appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi distracted even more eyeballs.
At 9:01 am Thursday, Treasury took the extreme step of postponing a scheduled Nov. 2 auction of two-year federal notes -- the day before the government will slam into the debt limit.
Such auction cancellations are rare. Selling off Treasury notes incurs additional federal debt. The signal of shelving an auction means Treasury doesn’t want to incur any more debt, lacking confidence in Congress to increase the spending ceiling, allowing for the accumulation of additional debt.
“The current debt limit impasse is also now adversely affecting the operation of government financing, increasing federal government borrowing costs, reducing the Treasury bill supply, and increasing the operational risk associated with holding a lower cash balance,” said Treasury in the statement.
It added that as of Nov. 3, federal coffers would dwindle to a meager $30 billion. That may seem like a lot. But to the federal government, $30 billion is practically pocket lint.
What’s remarkable is that there simply doesn’t seem to be a route right now in the House and Senate to raise the debt ceiling. Raising the debt limit is the most noxious vote a member of Congress can take. Right now, the sheer dearth of information from senior lawmakers and top legislative aides is startling. No one has any clue how this gets solved.
“It’s pretty drastic,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when asked about Treasury’s move to cancel the auction.
Behind the scenes, House Republicans toiled on a bill to increase the debt limit but also make long-term cuts. The GOP brass shelved that legislation when it was clear the measure lacked the support to pass.
“We’ll see,” was Boehner’s practically bromidic response when asked by reporters what course the House may take to avoid hitting the debt ceiling.
In his weekly colloquy on the floor with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., only indicated that “the House is expected to address this issue next week.”
McCarthy added Congress “must start the down payment where we don’t have to worry about raising the debt limit and paying off the debt and not leaving it to our children and grandchildren.”
In a meeting with reporters, Hoyer assured Democratic unanimity on a so-called “clean” measure to raise the debt ceiling with no political add-ons. But even that gambit faces trouble. The House is now comprised of 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats. The magic number for passing most bills is 218. If Democrats stick together, that means Republicans still need to cough up 30 yeas to lug a measure to passage.
That sounds relatively easy. But isn’t. Past is prologue.
The House last dealt with the debt limit on February 11, 2014. The chamber voted that day to “suspend” the debt ceiling, 221-201. But the breakdown of that roll call tally is packed with intrigue -- 193 Democrats voted aye to pass the bill, buttressed by a mere 28 Republicans. And 199 Republicans voted no.
The 28 GOP yeas were mostly members of the leadership team, committee chairs (a couple of whom have since retired) and moderates. That vote is a landmark: the fewest number of members from the majority party who voted yes on a major bill which passed the House in years.
Among the 199 noes? Paul Ryan.
It’s not hard to understand Ryan’s no vote that day. The bill simply put off a rendezvous with the debt ceiling until this fall without any complimentary action to reduce spending or entitlement obligations like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- the biggest drivers of federal red ink.
But what would Ryan’s presumably nascent speakership look like if he were to cast a nay ballot on a similar debt ceiling bill in the coming days? And as speaker, would Ryan be willing to put a bill like that on the House floor?
Such a challenge is vexing for Ryan. Solving fiscal issues is supposed to be his calling card. A supposed economic shaman, Ryan propelled himself to this point by talking about taxes, spending and budgets. And with the timing of the debt ceiling and the speaker vote slated for Oct. 29, either Boehner’s going to figure this out or it’s going to fall in Ryan’s lap.
In an interview with CBS, Boehner promised he wouldn’t “leave my successor a dirty barn.” But the place is a sty right now. A surefire course to short-circuiting a Ryan speakership is for Boehner to leave without lifting the debt limit. That could be detrimental to Ryan as either the standoff lingers or the Wisconsin Republican is forced to put a politically untenable bill on the floor which goes against every fiber of his political being -- relying on Democrats to advance the cause.
That move is directly out of Boehner’s playbook and will infuriate conservatives. In the vernacular of Led Zeppelin, “The Song Remains the Same.” It won’t look good for the new speaker.
One knowledgeable source suggested to Fox News that if the debt ceiling issue isn’t resolved by Thursday, the House could delay the speaker vote so as not to undercut Ryan. Senior congressional sources contend that plan wasn’t in play right now. But remember that House Republicans have already burned through at least four different plans to elect a new speaker since Boehner announced his resignation.
Ryan arrives at this point with tenuous political capital. If he’s elected speaker, he’s going to need détente with the hard-right. A debt ceiling scrum on either side of the speaker vote could chew up some of the good will Ryan’s negotiated with his fellow Republicans.
Democrats are already angling for Ryan, too. On Tuesday night, he laid down a non-negotiable for him to become speaker:
“I cannot and will not give up my family time,” Ryan said.
Later, he declared “I'm here four days a week. I'm not going to spend the other three days running around America.”
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, decried Ryan’s condition for serving.
“He says, ‘I don’t want to work weekends.’ I’ve never heard of someone who wanted more power and less responsibility,” protested Huelskamp, who still supports Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., for speaker.
Without intending to do so, Ryan may have already stumbled into a political trap laid artfully this week by Pelosi. She applauded Ryan’s “respect for his family-work balance.”
“I think that’s very exciting because that’s what we want for all of America’s families,” gushed the California Republican.
She then ticked off a laundry list of Democratic policy priorities, including family medical leave, health care for seniors and tax policy.
“I hope that that respect for (Ryan’s) situation would translate for recognition of what that means to all of America’s families because when America’s families succeed, America succeeds,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi is watching to see what policies emanate from the speaker’s office under Ryan. She’ll lower the boom on him if she doesn’t think his approaches are pro-family enough if he continues to trumpet the importance of trotting home to Wisconsin each weekend.
And that begs this question: Let’s say Congress runs head-long into the debt ceiling in a few days. Will Ryan stay in Washington and hash this out?
Pressure on the left. Pressure from the right. Deserved or not, hardline conservatives are protesting Ryan’s stance on immigration reform. One Ryan detractor suggested maybe his hallmark Zeppelin tune should be “The Immigrant Song.”
So the levee is certainly breaking here in Washington. Maybe for Paul Ryan, the most apropos Led Zeppelin song should be “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do?”