JUDY WOODRUFF: It was decision day in the House of Representatives today, as Speaker John Boehner faced a key test of his leadership, four days before the U.S. government could face default.
NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republicans pushed forward today on the speaker's plan, even as the measure faced a White House veto threat and a firm wall of opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Boehner's plan would cut the deficit by $917 billion over the next decade by capping the budgets of federal agencies. The proposal also would raise the debt ceiling by $900 billion, enough to allow the government to continue borrowing through the end of this year.
Speaking hours before the vote, Boehner said the measure deserved a fair hearing from Democrats.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio speaker of the House: Listen, we're going to pass a very responsible answer to this crisis. And our solution was put together by the bipartisan leaders here in Congress. There is no reason for them to say no. It's time for somebody in this town to say yes.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the White House this morning, Press Secretary Jay Carney said that wasn't going to happen.
JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: What I know about the speaker's proposal in the House right now is that there are already, I believe, 55, 56, 57, 58 senators, Democrats and Republicans, who oppose it.
It ain't going anywhere in the United States Senate.
So we need to start doing things that actually can pass both houses and be signed into law.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, piled on.
SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev. majority leader: Republicans cannot get the short-term Band-Aid they will vote on in the House today. It will not get one Democratic vote in the Senate. All 53 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus wrote to the speaker last night -- the letter was hand-delivered to him -- to tell him why we won't vote for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reid later announced the Senate would take up Boehner's plan immediately following the House vote, and pledged again to defeat it.
Reid has put forward his own proposal that would cut the deficit by $2.2 trillion over the next decade, with about half the savings coming from the winding down of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it would give the government an additional $2.7 trillion in borrowing authority to last through 2012.
The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said Democrats were playing with fire by opposing the Boehner plan.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky. minority leader: It's inconceivable to me that they would actually block the only bill that could get through the House of Representatives and prevent a default right now, inconceivable. It's inconceivable to me that they would do this for no other reason than to help the president avoid having another debate before his election about the need for Washington to get its fiscal house in order.
KWAME HOLMAN: Those words were echoed by many House Republicans who took to the floor this afternoon.
REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: What needs to be done today is, we need to recognize that if you owe debts, pay debts. We have to raise the nation's debt ceiling so that we have the money to pay the nation's bills. But we also owe a debt to this generation of Americans struggling in this economy and the next generation of Americans that we can only repay through fiscal discipline reform.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Democrats, such as Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, had a very different take on the plan.
REP. JIM MCGOVERN, D-Mass.: I keep expecting lion tamers and acrobats to appear on the House floor, because this process under this Republican leadership has become a complete circus. The underlying Boehner plan should be called the Republican default act.
KWAME HOLMAN: With the Aug. 2 deadline closing in, Washington received another warning today, this time from some of the nation's largest financial institutions.
In a letter urging action this week, they wrote: "The consequences of inaction for our economy, the already struggling job market, the financial circumstances of American businesses and families, and for America's global economic leadership would be very grave."
The Treasury Department said today it would release details in the coming days about one of the immediate consequences of inaction, which payments will receive priority should Congress fail to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday.
JEFFREY BROWN: And here now for more, NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
David, we were expecting a vote around this time, East Coast time, right? What seems to be the delay?
DAVID CHALIAN: The House Republican leaders decided to postpone the vote right now. Eric Cantor's office, the House majority leader, says a vote will take place this evening.
But there is only one reason that leader postpone votes. And that's when they don't have the votes to pass their preferred legislation, Jeff. And Speaker Boehner is hunting for 217 votes. Here is the math for a moment of what Speaker Boehner is trying to do. He already knows he is not likely to get a single Democratic vote.
JEFFREY BROWN: Off the table.
DAVID CHALIAN: So that's not likely to happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
DAVID CHALIAN: So you are dealing in a Republican-only universe.
He has 240 Republicans. He can only lose 23 of them as no-votes in order to pass this bill. Right now, I think he might have a couple of more that he needs to do some good old-fashioned arm-twisting with. And we know at this hour those meetings are taking place off the House floor one-on-one with the speaker trying to make sure he gets...
JEFFREY BROWN: In the last couple of days, this has become a real test for him personally.
DAVID CHALIAN: There is no doubt. This is his single biggest test since becoming speaker of the House.
We have talked all year long, Jeff, about his challenge, right, in terms of being able to work with the president, a Democratic president, and the Democratic majority in the Senate, but having these 87 freshmen who came to Washington on the wave of Tea Party support who do not want to be dealing in any way with the opposition.
And so that creates a real problem for Speaker Boehner. We're seeing that problem in stark relief tonight.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, look, projecting ahead, if there is a vote, it goes to the Senate, if it passes, right?
DAVID CHALIAN: Yes. Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Then what? They have made clear -- we just saw they made clear again, no way. Speaking of being off the table, it's off the table with the Democratic Senate.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. They continue to call it dead on arrival.
What would likely happen now -- and we're hearing from Senator Reid's office that he would likely, if the Boehner preferred bill gets out of the House, take that up and actually table it, put it to the side because he knows it cannot pass. That's when a real final negotiation begins.
How do they use that Boehner plan that right now President Obama said he would veto that is not acceptable to the Democrats and tweak it enough to be able to keep the Republican support that sent it over to the Senate and bring on the Democrats in the Senate in order to get it to the president's desk?
JEFFREY BROWN: And do you have a sense of where the nub of the debate is at this point?
DAVID CHALIAN: It's all centering around this notion of a trigger, of a second debt limit increase vote. As you know and we have discussed in the last several nights, Speaker Boehner's plan calls for a raising the debt limit by $900 billion now and then doing a second vote six months from now.
That is anathema to President Obama, he said. It all is down to this debate of using a second debt limit vote to trigger more deficit reduction. I have a feeling that that -- somebody -- right now, we're in a real staring contest between the president and the speaker on this. And somebody is going to have to blink.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we are watching. David Chalian, thanks.
DAVID CHALIAN: Sure.