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What It Will Take to Get a Deal on the Debt Ceiling

Friday, 22 Jul 2011 | 4:52 PM ET
U.S. Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner
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U.S. Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner

The only talks to raise the federal government's debt ceiling are now being held between the White House and House Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Earlier today the Senate tabled a measure known as "cut, cap and balance" that had passed the House. Following that move, the Senate Majority leader announced that the Senate would close up shop for the weekend. The so called “gang of six” deal is considered dead by many Capitol Hill insiders.

That effectively means that a compromise measure that was being worked out between Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell has been shelved.

"The path to avert default now runs first through the House of Representatives," Reid said.

So what will it take to get a deal?

Well, at the very minimum, Boehner needs a deal that will be able to muster the votes of 120 other members of the 240 member GOP majority.

Agreeing to any deal that doesn’t have that level of Republican support would likely mean Boehner’s ouster as Speaker of the House.

Getting to 120 could be a challenge for any deal that involves tax increases. At least sixty of the 240 members are part of the Tea Party caucus and unlikely to vote for any deal that raises the debt ceiling and raises taxes. Washington Insiders say there are probably another sixty hardline fiscal hawks who would be loathe to vote for any tax increase. So right away, you have 120 votes arrayed against any tax hiking deal. Boehner would need every other Republican member to support a deal.

It is possible, of course, that a few of the non-tea party fiscal hawks could be swayed if lobbied by the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests and if persuaded that the only other options is default.

But making the case that default is the only other option might be hard. After all, the House passed another option—cut, cap and balance.

So anyone trying to convince the GOP stalwarts that they need to give ground needs to answer: why should we give ground and not the Senate Democrats?

If Boehner somehow gets to 120 votes, he will need another 98 votes to get a deal passed the House. Those will have to come from Democrats.

Can the Obama administration deliver 98 Democrats?

There are 193 Democrats in the House. It seems likely that the Progressive caucus, which has 60 members, will vote against any deal to which Boehner could get the majority of the GOP caucus to agree. So we’re down to 133 members. This leaves Obama with a margin of error of just 35 Democrats to get a bill passed by the House.

This should be doable for Obama. He is still the leader of his party and an important fund raiser. Democrats who are worried that voting for the Boehner-approved debt ceiling plan would give rise to a primary challenge from the left can be reassured that the Obama administration will block any effective challenger.

So forget about budget math. Right now these are the calculations that are informing the negotiations over the debt ceiling. The magic equation for the debt ceiling is 120 plus 98.

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