WASHINGTON — The government barreled closer to crisis Tuesday as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scrambled to build support for rival plans to control the national debt, but both appeared doomed without significant bipartisan modifications.
House Republicans delayed a vote on Boehner's bill, which had been set for today, after congressional budget analysts dealt the legislation a potentially devastating setback by saying it would save far less over the next decade than the $1.2 trillion advertised. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the spending cuts would save only about $850 billion over that period.
House Republicans were racing Tuesday night to rewrite portions of the measure to bring the numbers into line. The vote could now come Thursday.
As Boehner, R-Ohio, pressed toward a cliffhanger vote in the House, President Barack Obama signaled that would veto the measure because it would force another battle over the debt limit early next year. Meanwhile, Reid, D-Nev., pronounced the proposal "dead on arrival" in the Senate, where Democrats were struggling to rally votes for their own plan to raise the debt limit by $2.7 trillion — enough additional borrowing authority to cover the nation's bills into 2013.
The legislative maneuvering played out against a backdrop of public outrage, as the Capitol switchboard became jammed and visitors swamped congressional websites, apparently heeding a call Obama made Monday in a prime-time national address for Americans to contact their representatives in Congress.
To push a House-led plan, Boehner must amass 217 votes. There are 240 Republicans in the House, so he can afford to lose no more than 23.
"When there is this type of pressure, I do what I was taught to do: I get on my knees and I ask for some understanding and some leadership," said Rep. Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican from Louisiana, who came to Washington without any experience in elected office. He said he was undecided, but skeptical.
Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, said, "If I had to vote right now, my vote would be no."
At a closed-door meeting of Republicans, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader, said it was time to "quit whining" and vote.
Seeking to inspire members, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House whip responsible for aligning members, turned to Hollywood. He showed lawmakers a clip from the heist movie drama The Town, as Ben Affleck's character tells his accomplice he needs his help and needs it now — no questions asked.
The loyal buddy seizes the moment by simply responding: "Whose car we gonna take?"
Rep. Allen West, a tea party-aligned freshman from Florida who has been known to buck leadership, gave an impassioned speech backing the plan.
West concluded by saying: "I will drive the car."
Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former prosecutor, said he and his peers are not the caricature Obama makes them out to be, but fiscal hawks who want to make a "trans-generational" impact on debts and deficits.
"We're not a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing Neanderthals," he said.
Democratic aides acknowledged that the Senate bill is unlikely to pass without Republican support.
That backing was not forthcoming Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized the Democratic alternative, saying it contains "highly suspect spending reduction features."
Reid was engaged in talks with Boehner and McConnell about a potential compromise. But they remained deeply divided over the size of a debt-ceiling increase and the mission of a new debt-reduction committee that would be created under both measures.
Late Tuesday, the trio was still searching for a way to ensure that Congress adopts a far-reaching strategy in the coming months for reducing the national debt — or to guarantee that lawmakers would raise the debt limit a second time without such a plan.
One option under discussion was reviving parts of a plan the Senate's so-called Gang of Six announced last week that has won support in both parties. For example, negotiators discussed creating a new mechanism for moving a plan forward if a debt-reduction committee, which would be composed of 12 lawmakers appointed by party leaders, were unable to reach agreement.
"We need to do whatever we can do to reassure capital markets and make sure we don't have a downgrade to our debt. And part of that is going to be creating a path forward to give the markets confidence that we are going to act comprehensively on our debt and our deficit," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a Gang of Six supporter.
Information from McClatchy Tribune News Service and the New York Times was used in this report.