(Updated) Predicting an end to the debt ceiling debate

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2011 - 2:44 PM

The reality show unfolding in Washington, D.C., over the debt ceiling is scarier and more compelling than anything TV can offer up. If you’re tuning it in the days leading up to the Aug. 2 deadline, here’s my best guess at the timeline, and a cheat sheet for the math that needs to happen.

Based on what’s known right now, the U.S. House is expected to vote late Friday afternoon on John Boehner’s plan - though the vote has been a moving target. If that passes, the legislation is expected to be dead-on-arrival in the Democratically-controlled Senate.

So that means something crafted in the Senate - likely some kind of riff on the Boehner plan - will have to go back to the Republican-controlled U.S. House for another vote. When that happens is dependent on a number of procedural issues, but it could be as late as Monday, Aug. 1, from what I’m hearing.  And since Boehner is busy rounding up votes, that means less time behind closed doors for the House leadership to figure out some kind of deal that can pass both chambers.

The second House vote is the make-or-break moment in this drama. Boehner does not have much wiggle room if Republicans decide to bolt from legislation they feel was compromised in the Senate. If everybody who can vote shows up, Boehner needs 217 votes to pass legislation, according to the U.S. House parliamentarian's office, meaning only 23 of 240 Republicans can defect.

The number for determining the magic number of passage is a little tricky, which is why you’ll see variations all over the web. The House has 435 members, but two vacancies: seats held by Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York and Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada. Rep. David Wu of Oregon is still expected to cast a vote, but Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is not since she’s still recovering from gunshot wounds. So the total maximum number of possible votes is 432, which means that 217 is the number needed. That number would be less if fewer representatives showed up to vote.

If House Democrats have to provide the vote foundation for this last-ditch legislation, they only have 192 votes. That means that 25 Republicans at a bare minimum would need to cast a vote for a plan that would appeal to Democrats. It could be more, if liberal Democrats object to the Senate plan’s spending cuts.

Twenty-five doesn’t sound like a lot of votes to get. But it is, when you consider that the Tea Party faction has promised primary challenges to responsible politicians who vote to raise the ceiling. And that’s why the specter of 23 Republicans defecting on any vote to raise the debt ceiling is a more than a distinct possibility. These may well be career-killing votes.

Like other reality show stars, politicians’ decision may well determine whether they stay on the island or have to leave it.

I still think that Congress will muddle through with a last-minute deal because default remains unthinkable, even if this nation has thought more about it than it ever has. But I’m still hearing from a lot more pessimists than optimists right now about how this drama ends.

Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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