Congressional Leaders Debate Votes Needed To End Shutdown

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House Speaker John Boehner has explained often why his Republican caucus is standing firm on the spending bill: because of the dangers he thinks are posed by the president's health care law. But on Sunday, Boehner went further, and said the votes are not there to pass a "clean" spending bill that would fund the government without making changes to the Affordable Care Act. That statement goes against many other observers, both Republican and Democrat, who believe the opposite.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. We're in the seventh day of the government shutdown and still, there's no resolution in sight. For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner has insisted the reason his Republican caucus is digging in its heels on the budget fight is that the Affordable Care Act harms Americans. But now, the speaker has another reason. Yesterday, Boehner claimed there simply are not enough votes in the House for a clean spending bill - that is, one without any strings attached.

That remark caught a lot of heat from both Republicans and Democrats who say the speaker is being less than honest about the vote count. With us now to talk about the ongoing budget dispute is NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. And Ailsa, this is the question, right, could Speaker Boehner singlehandedly end the government shutdown by bringing a clean spending bill to the House floor for a vote?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, Boehner is saying he certainly doesn't think he has that power. So yesterday, on "This Week," on ABC, he was asked point blank, are you going to schedule a vote on the Senate's bill? And, again, that's a clean spending bill that doesn't try to defund the president's healthcare law. And for the first time since the shutdown, Boehner made this declaration.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR.

CHANG: Now, Boehner isn't exactly alone in saying this. There are other House Republicans, even moderate Republicans, who agree with him, like Michael Grimm of New York.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL GRIMM: And a clean CR, I don't think, would pass the floor anyway at this point. I think that ship has sailed because I don't think you have enough Democrat votes to cover those you lose on the Republican side.

BLOCK: So Ailsa, are they right? Are the votes there or are they not there?

CHANG: The votes are likely there. The bill needs 217 votes in the House to pass. What we know is 195 House Democrats signed a letter last week saying they would vote for a clean spending bill. And NPR compiled a spreadsheet showing what various House Republicans are saying to the press. Turns out a little more than 20 Republicans are either suggesting or outright saying they would vote yes, too.

So it looks like the votes could really be there right now, even just based on these public statements. It might look like a squeaker of a vote, but remember, we also don't know how many Republicans will vote yes and are just keeping quiet right now because they don't want to undermine Boehner or get the Tea Party faction angry.

BLOCK: So what are the chances that John Boehner would actually let this up or down vote happen?

CHANG: It certainly doesn't look like he intends to have this vote, but Democrats are saying what are you afraid of? Today, in fact, President Obama dared Boehner to bring the Senate bill up for a vote if he really wants to see the shutdown end.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let every member of Congress vote their conscience and they can determine whether or not they want to shut the government down. My suspicion is, my very strong suspicion is that there are enough votes there. And the reason that Speaker Boehner hasn't called a vote on it is because he doesn't apparently want to see the government shutdown end at the moment.

CHANG: Boehner's in a really tricky spot. He's not exactly thrilled to be in yet another situation where he has to rely on Democrats to pass something, just like he did with the fiscal cliff deal, Superstorm Sandy relief and the Violence Against Women Act.

BLOCK: So Ailsa, if there is now an up or down vote, then what? The House keeps passing smaller spending bills. The Senate keeps rejecting them. So it's hard to see what the way out would be.

CHANG: That's right. Well, there are lawmakers pushing for some larger deal that would reopen the government, raise the debt ceiling and make cuts to entitlement spending, but Senate leaders and the White House say they're not negotiating until after the government reopens and after the debt ceiling's resolved.

And then, there's this question as to how productive would a talk even be right now when there's so much distrust. Just today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released a statement saying Boehner has a credibility problem because of his comments on TV yesterday and his unwillingness to support the Senate bill.

Reid says that bill was something Boehner personally supported when the two were having conversations this summer. And now, Reid believes Boehner is going back on his word. Boehner's spokesperson said such talk is just faux outrage from the Senate and it's the Democrats who are refusing to negotiate.

BLOCK: Okay. On and on it goes. NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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