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House Republicans Unsure Their Last-Ditch Plan Will Pass As Default Looms

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WASHINGTON -- House Republicans sang "Amazing Grace" Tuesday morning and unveiled a fresh plan to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling -- only to have it declared dead on arrival.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made the presentation in a two-hour, closed-door meeting of the GOP conference in the basement of the Capitol building after Florida Rep. Steve Southerland led three verses of the hymn, which one Democrat suggested is often sung at funerals.

Indeed, even Boehner, in an uncharacteristic move, conceded the plan might never be presented for a vote on the House floor.

"There are a lot of opinions about what direction to go. There have been no decisions about what exactly we will do," he told reporters. "We are going to continue to work with our members on both sides of the aisle to try and make sure there is no issue of default and to get our government reopened."

The Treasury Department said that sometime around Thursday it will run out of sufficient cash in the bank to pay all of the nation's bills, risking a default that economists fear will be catastrophic to the economy.

The House plan adopts significant aspects of the Senate's plan, and would fund the government through Jan. 15, raise the borrowing cap through Feb. 7, and add income verification tests to Obamacare. Unlike the Senate plan, it would delay the Affordable Care Act's medical device tax by two years and would eliminate federal health care subsidies for members of Congress, but not for their staffs. Some tea party members apparently want staff eliminated from coverage as well. In addition, the House effort would bar the Treasury Department from taking "extraordinary measures" to pay the government's bills as it has since the country began to reach the debt limit back in May.

Democrats and the White House swiftly rejected the GOP plan in favor of the bipartisan effort in the Senate that would include only modest changes to Obamacare and would preserve the Treasury Department's ability to buy time to avoid default.

"The President has said repeatedly that Members of Congress don't get to demand ransom for fulfilling their basic responsibilities to pass a budget and pay the nation's bills," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the latest proposal from House Republicans does just that in a partisan attempt to appease a small group of Tea Party Republicans who forced the government shutdown in the first place."

"Introduction of this measure by the House Republican leadership is unproductive and a waste of time. Let's be clear: The House legislation will not pass the Senate," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), singling out the Treasury restrictions as a petty attempt by the tea party to hamstring President Barack Obama. He also said the plan lacks a mechanism, called a conference committee, to resolve the dispute, although Republicans said there would be one in the still-evolving proposal.

"I'm very disappointed with John Boehner, who would once again try to preserve his role at the expense of the country," Reid said. "This bill that they're sending over here is doomed to failure. It's doomed to failure legislatively, and it is so awful, awful, awful for our country."

Reaction among House Republicans, who began the government funding fight in an attempt to defund Obamacare, was largely mixed.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the GOP's deputy whip, acknowledged the path to 218 votes might require Democratic support.

"I know we have a majority [of Republicans], but if we have 218, I don't know. We'll see," he said. "I hope [Democrats] vote for it, because this accomplishes some things that both sides say they want to accomplish, but I have no assurances that they would. I don't think they probably would until they saw 218 of our people up on the board."

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) said members had expressed several concerns about the plan, but were stuck with the "very unappealing" alternative of a default.

While he was supportive of the current plan, he added that it was a "tough question" as to whether leadership had enough votes to pass it.

Once again, the problem seemed to be bridging the differences between the right flank, for whom the plan didn't go far enough, and more moderate Republicans, who are fed up with efforts to appease the tea party.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), one of the most vocal critics of the House's strategy thus far, declined to react to the plan. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), another frustrated moderate, said he'd vote for the plan to "move the ball forward," but was concerned it didn't leave enough time to avert default in just under three days.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a conservative member of the House, said he was leaning toward supporting the bill. "I haven't completely worked through it, but I am leaning yes," he said. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said he opposed raising the debt ceiling at all, but declined to say if he'd back the proposal. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said he backed the bill, but that Boehner would only put it on the floor if he thought it would pass. The "whipping" to find out how members would vote was likely to take hours, and changes in the plan could be made to gather enough support.

If Cole, a deputy GOP whip, was counting on Democratic votes, it appeared few would be available to offset Republican defections.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he hoped Democrats would not peel off in favor of the GOP's plan. "We're encouraging members to vote no on the bill," he told reporters at his weekly press availability.

"The Republican conference has got a very hard view and has given their leadership a very short leash," Hoyer said. "So the leadership seems to have little flexibility in coming to the kind of agreement that we see being discussed in the Senate."

Republicans seemed surprised at the adamant rejection of the GOP proposal before it had even been formally presented.

"I don't understand that. I don't understand that visceral reaction in a most negative fashion," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even though he has harshly criticized the House's actions in the showdown. "I understand what the polling data says -- that 74 percent of the American people disapprove of Republican handling of this issue, and I agree with that ... We got ourselves in a ditch and we've got to stop digging."

But he pleaded for his chamber's leaders to take Boehner's "good-faith effort" seriously, which McCain said could lead to a compromise in 24 hours.

"For the majority leader and the Democrats in the House and the White House to say, 'Absolutely categorically not, we will not consider what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are doing,' in my view, is piling on. It's piling on, and it's not right," McCain said.

This post has been updated to include additional quotes from members of Congress.

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