The House Republican leadership was in overdrive Friday trying to wrangle Tea Party conservatives into passing a debt-ceiling bill, picking up where they left off after failing to garner enough support to bring it to a vote the night before.
On Thursday afternoon, behind closed doors, a few Democratic officials talked how they expected the evening to play out that night: The House would pass Boehner's plan and the Senate would kill it. Then on Friday morning — with just days left before a U.S. default — both sides could get to work on something that the president would sign to avert disaster.
That's not what happened.
When the clock ticked closer to the scheduled House vote late Thursday, Boehner realized that for the second day in a row, he didn't have enough support from his party's right wing. He stalled while the House clerk brought a different bill, regarding the U.S. Postal Service, to the floor.
That measure kept the House floor occupied as the speaker's office became the scene of some heavy coercion and horse-trading on the debt-ceiling legislation.
Republican freshmen went one by one to speak with the party leaders behind closed doors. One problem was Pell grants. They said they were upset that Boehner's plan includes $17 billion over two years for college student loans.
From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted: "Clock ticks towards August 2. House is naming post offices, while leaders twist arms for a pointless vote. No wonder people hate Washington."
Pfeiffer called the vote on Boehner's plan pointless because of what awaits it in the Senate. More than 50 senators oppose the measure, and President Obama has promised to veto it.
But the Senate didn't get a shot at Boehner's bill Thursday because the House speaker called it a night around 10:30 p.m.
The GOP plan calls for a $900 billion debt-limit hike first, coupled with $917 billion in spending cuts over 10 years. A second vote, late this year or sometime next year, would allow another $1.6 trillion in borrowing power, provided that Congress and the president have agreed to another round of spending cuts of that amount or more.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Thursday that he won't tolerate a bill that would require another vote on the spending cap six months from now.
"We must not be back here in six weeks or six months debating whether to allow our nation to default on its financial obligations for Republicans' right wing that seem to be controlling so much of what they're doing in the house," Reid said.
With the House measure stalled, Reid said Friday that he will move ahead with his own debt-limit bill and invited his counterpart, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to negotiate with him.
Reid's move sets up a potential showdown vote in the Senate on Sunday.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blamed the president for the debt-ceiling impasse.
"You have one in the White House that doesn't know how to lead except from the back," he said.
Obama has kept a relatively low profile this week as Congress has thrashed and flailed trying to reach some sort of agreement. But White House aides said the president has been busy working the phones. On Thursday, he also had an off-the-record lunch with a handful of reporters and last week, the president rolled out news conferences, town hall meetings and speeches to try to move the ball forward.
"He had shot every arrow in his quiver without achieving his intended result, and I think he had no choice but to back off and let the Congress work its will for a while," said Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, who is a former policy adviser to President Clinton.
Instead, the White House has deployed a fleet of surrogates.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was a Republican member of Congress for 14 years, took the lectern in the White House briefing room Thursday, calling the situation unprecedented in a message apparently aimed at Tea Party conservatives.
"We need for people to come together, set aside their own egos, a certain part of their own agenda, for the American people to make sure we still have the strongest economy in the world," LaHood said.
Republicans were trying to round up enough votes again Friday, but if they fail, they could give Democrats a free hand to shape a bill to their liking and dare the House to reject it as the country teeters on default.
If House Republicans do pass Boehner's legislation, the Democratic-controlled Senate would kill it quickly. Then Reid and McConnell would be faced with a tall order: reach a compromise that can circumvent a GOP filibuster and pass the Senate, gain approval in the House and be signed by the president.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reported from Washington for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.
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