House Speaker John Boehner abruptly canceled a vote on his plan to lift the federal debt limit late Thursday after failing to persuade recalcitrant conservatives to back the measure and help him avert an economy-rattling default.
After a night of legislative chaos, with control of his caucus slipping in dramatic fashion from his grasp, Boehner, R-Ohio, yanked the bill from the House floor and prepared to make changes aimed at appealing to his tea party-influenced right flank. Republican aides said they hoped for a vote today.
But with GOP leaders unable to offer assurances that the needed support would materialize, Senate Democrats laid plans to proceed with their own debt-ceiling plan in hopes of pushing a measure through Congress by Tuesday, when the U.S. Treasury says it could begin running short of cash to pay the nation's bills.
The late-night drama developed after debate on Boehner's debt-limit bill had concluded and lawmakers were minutes away from what was expected to be a cliffhanger vote.
Boehner abruptly postponed an early evening vote. Instead, he and other leaders worked furiously to persuade 217 Republicans to vote for passage. Recalcitrant Republicans were summoned to Boehner's office in an attempt to change their votes. About 10:25 p.m., Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters there would be no vote Thursday.
Many GOP conservatives, under strong pressure from tea party and other like-minded groups, were balking, saying the GOP plan wouldn't cut federal spending enough — and some said that the nation's debt limit shouldn't be raised at all.
A defeat would be a huge embarrassment for Boehner. "This is a vote that John needs," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
Based on public statements by lawmakers themselves, it appeared that five of some two dozen holdouts were from South Carolina. The state is also represented by Sen. Jim DeMint, who has solid ties to tea party groups and is a strong critic of compromising on the debt.
One after another, recalcitrant Republicans were marched into Boehner's office, where he begged, implored and berated them in a desperate effort to win their support for his proposal to resolve the debt crisis.
Some of those who left Boehner's office looked stricken, but said they were unyielding.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas emerged, saying he was "a bloody, beaten-down no."
Thursday evening, the White House quickly taunted Boehner's Republicans as he tried to twist their arms.
"Clock ticks towards August 2, House is naming post offices, while leaders twist arms for a pointless vote. No wonder people hate Washington," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the measure, and in debate on the House floor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida savaged it as a "Republican plan for default." She said the GOP hoped to "hold our economy hostage while forcing an ideological agenda" on the country.
Throughout the day, it seemed as though Boehner was indeed picking up support for his bill, which cuts spending, raises the debt ceiling and gives his members their coveted balanced-budget amendment.
"We're going to pass a very responsible answer to this crisis," Boehner told reporters. "And our solution was put together by the bipartisan leaders here in Congress. There is no reason for them to say no. It's time for somebody in this town to say yes."
But in the waning hours of debate, the math appeared to turn against the speaker.
Freedom Works, a tea party group, began midday to pressure members who were on the fence via Twitter messages, urging people at home to call the members and tell them to vote no. Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska also got in the game, posting on her Facebook Page an ominous warning to freshmen about contested primaries.
As the debate on the bill wound down, with the minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, offering her closing remarks, the House floor abruptly shifted from the budget plan to a discussion of minor legislation — including naming post offices in Peoria, Ill., Geneva, N.Y., and even Guam.
Boehner emerged from his office to a sea of reporters, whom he met with a mild curse, grabbed members and marched them through the speaker's lobby in full view of their colleagues.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., did not emerge from it looking as though he had been picnicking. Other lawmakers who met with the speaker included Mo Brooks of Alabama, Jeff Flake and Trent Franks of Arizona, and two freshmen from Illinois, Randy Hultgren and Joe Walsh. On Thursday night, Walsh said he was still a no vote.
The whipping effort had begun early in the week and included pizza parties and one-on-one meetings with freshmen, cellphone calls and nice dinners over wine.
Members agonized, they said.
Some men from the South Carolina freshman delegation, a tight-knit group of very conservative lawmakers who often stick closely together, repaired to the House chapel on Thursday to pray about the difficult situation.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he sought divine guidance.
"I am a no at the end of the day," Scott said. "I was leaning no. Now I am a no."
His fellow South Carolinians, Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney, met with Boehner. Duncan said he was going "to the chapel" to pray on his decision.
About 45 minutes later, they emerged and headed downstairs to the first-floor offices of the house majority whip Boehner was waiting.
Other Republicans who had gathered there included Reps. Michael Burgess of Texas, Trent Franks of Arizona, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Dan Lungren of California, Tom Price of Georgia and Austin Scott of Georgia.
Amid the frenzy, Rep. David Wu, the Oregon Democrat who resigned this week amid a sex scandal, sat peacefully on the balcony off the speaker's lobby, awaiting the last votes of his career. He was pulling on a stogie.
Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.