"Today we will pass Paul Ryan's budget," predicted House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) at a 10:45 press conference Friday morning. "And I want to say congratulations to Paul and the members of the Budget Committee for a job well done."
But less than an hour later, shaman Boehner's soothsaying would be put to the test as House Democrats nearly upended the touchstone of GOP's legislative agenda through some well-devised procedural mischief on the House floor.
The budget Boehner spoke of is the product of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP's green eyeshade mensch when it comes to all things fiscal. Official Washington has heralded few things in recent years with such anticipatory fanfare as the delivery of the Ryan budget. One exception was the pitching debut of Washington Nationals' phenom Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg tore a ligament in his arm last summer, disrupting his rookie season. But before his injury, Strasburg ascended quickly through the minors before making the Nationals and wowing the crowds. And were it not for some quick parliamentary Tommy John surgery on the House floor by the GOP brass Friday, the Ryan budget would have never made it to The Show.
A budget hawk, Ryan has evangelized to his Congressional colleagues for years about the need to slash spending and curb the overwhelming debts and deficits now run by the federal government. Ryan's ambitious budget blueprint would clip nearly $6 trillion over the next decade and overhaul Medicare and Medicaid. But the Ryan plan wasn't the only proposal before the House Friday.
The House agreed to consider a variety of budget proposals. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) each wheeled out their proposals. So did Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the top Democrat on the budget panel, concocted a draft of his own. And so did the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a bloc comprised of the most-conservative 176 lawmakers in the House.
The House scheduled votes on most of these plans to precede the vote on Ryan's budget, which everyone imagined was a fait accompli.
But most adroit Capitol Hill watchers knew that a substantial number of Republicans would vote for the RSC's budget proposal.
And so did House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), who serves on the Budget Committee, authored the RSC's alternative budget. The Ryan cuts are deep. But by contrast, the spending and entitlement reductions in Garrett's proposal are chasms.
The RSC increases the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility age for those accepting Social Security and Medicare.
The plan slices $200 billion from President Obama's budget. That's $100 billion more than what Paul Ryan called for.
On Friday, the House rejected the CBC and CPC budgets without much fanfare. And then time came to consider the RSC budget.
At the same news conference where Boehner made his predictions about the Ryan budget, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gently scolded the press.
"There's been a lot of coverage that all of you have been writing about the drama of this place," Cantor said. "Well, I can tell you that our conference is united."
The leader had no idea about the drama that was about to unfold on the House floor over the RSC budget, courtesy of Steny Hoyer and the Democrats.
The vote started innocuously enough, with the "yeas" for the RSC budget surging ahead of the "nays" on the scoreboard inside the House chamber. Due to two vacant seats in the House of Representatives, achieving 217 yeas is the magic number to pass something these days, rather than 218. But those not paying close attention didn't realize that the RSC budget is what's called a "substitute" amendment. And the RSC's substitute came close to having serious consequences for the Ryan budget.
A "substitute" is simple. It simply extracts the text of the underlying bill or resolution (in this case, the budget written by Ryan) and replaces it with a brand new alternative. If the House approves any substitute prior to consideration of the underlying bill (meaning, if another budget garners 217 yes votes), the process stops and that substitute becomes the version adopted by lawmakers.
In other words, the House could have approved the CBC's budget instead of Ryan's. But it defeated that proposal 303 to 103. Lawmakers could have approved the CPC's budget. But the House pulverized that one, too, 347 to 77.
Many on Capitol Hill were anxious to see how many votes the Republican Study Committee could amass for its budget. Lots of tea party-backed freshmen felt stung by the vote earlier in the week to only slash $38.5 billion in spending for the rest of the fiscal year when they favored the higher figure of $61 billion. So the RSC was prepped for a healthy outcome on its proposal.
But no one gave the RSC budget a chance for passage.
Until the Democrats got involved.
Or didn't get involved, as the case may be.
The House Republican braintrust assumed that a host of moderate Republicans would join nearly all Democrats to defeat the RSC's idea. After all, if Democrats weren't going to support the Ryan plan, they would certainly oppose the ultra-conservative budget drafted by Scott Garrett.
As the clock ticked down to 00:00 on the House scoreboard, the RSC plan was prevailing, mostly because few Democrats had even bothered to vote. Surely the RSC plan wouldn't win, would it? Because if it did, the RSC would have short-circuited the Ryan plan and it would never even make it to the floor.
And that's when Steny Hoyer showed his hand.
At 11:52 am, an email exploded onto BlackBerries all over Capitol Hill from the Democratic Whip Press Shop.
"We are now voting on the RSC budget. Democrats are voting present to highlight Republican divisions. By voting present, Republicans will be in a position of either passing the RSC budget, or voting against Club for Growth who is scoring this vote," read the missive. "With Democrats voting present, Republicans are solely responsible for passage or failure of the RSC budget."
By holding their votes until the last minute and then answering "present," Democrats were driving down the total necessary to approve the resolution. In fact this tactic would drop the total WELL below 217. That's because present votes don't count against the final vote tally. In addition, the gambit of Democrats voting present hampered the GOP, which ironically, NEEDED Democrats to vote no against the RSC just to lug the Ryan budget to the floor.
First 12 Democratic present votes rolled in. It ballooned to 40 a minute later. Then the figure exploded all the way up to 152 in a matter of seconds.
Pandemonium erupted on the floor. You could almost hear Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi declare "It's a trap!"
The number of Democratic present votes continued to swell. Now the scramble was on. Could Republicans persuade some its members to switch their votes from yes to no before Democrats could get those who voted no to alter their votes to present?
At least nine Republicans switched their votes, including House Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA) and the husband-and-wife tandem of Reps. Connie Mack (R-FL) & Mary Bono Mack (R-CA).
The GOP finally closed the vote with 119 members voting yes and 136 voting no. A staggering 172 Democrats had voted present. Although records like that aren't kept, no one could remember any vote where that many lawmakers voted present on an issue. Just sixteen Democrats weighed in on the RSC budget at all, each casting a no vote.With margin of 17 separating the yeas from the nays, a switch of only nine votes could have thrust the RSC budget across the finish line, jettisoning the Ryan plan. That means that if just nine more Republicans had backed the RSC proposal, it would have passed.
"Yeah, it was looking really good," said Garrett later. "It would have been great."
In some respects, passing the budget in this fashion is like pitching a rain-shortened no hitter in baseball. Sure, a pitcher no-hit the other club for five innings. And it counts as a regulation game. But it's not a true no-hitter.
The difference with the RSC budget is that regardless of HOW it was adopted, that could have been the resolution that counted. Democrats knew if their parliamentary chicanery helped the Republicans pass even more severe cuts, they could parade around the country during the Easter and Passover recess claiming that the GOP approved a budget that was "radical" and "Draconian." Even if it was Democrats who helped the Republicans do just that."If you believe in all of this stuff, go home and defend it," taunted Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
From his vantage point, Garrett described the budget vote as "exciting." But when he saw the scads of present votes on the board, the New Jersey Republican said he "knew they were up to something."
Upon further inspection, 119 Republicans voted for Garrett's budget and 120 Republicans voted against it.
The House later approved Ryan's budget with no histrionics. Only four Republicans abandoned ship on that vote and no Democrats voted yes.
For the second time in as many days, Republicans needed assistance from Democrats on the House floor on a major issue. On Thursday, the House ratified the deal John Boehner crafted with President Obama and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to cut $38.5 billion and keep the government operating. But Boehner needed the help of Democrats to okay that measure too as 59 Republicans voted no.
Boehner tried to downplay the outcome of that vote by noting "it was a bipartisan agreement."
Republicans rode to power last fall with an upstart majority determined to alter Washington. And so far, Boehner's team has scored a hat trick. It's cut spending, staved off a government shutdown and approved an unprecedented budget resolution designed to trim spending.
But there's a paradox to Boehner's success. The speaker hasn't achieved these goals solely because of the 87 GOP freshmen elected last fall. He's pulled it off because in each case, he got help from the Democrats.