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Shutdown Voting Math Fails To Add Up

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives on Capitol Hill on Monday.

A lot of words have been spilled since the government shutdown began nearly a week ago, but some of the most noteworthy came from the lips of House Speaker John Boehner Sunday on ABC's This Week:

"There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR," Boehner said, referring to a spending bill to end the shutdown that would be devoid of any extraneous language.

Why is this significant?

Because up until Sunday, Boehner had talked about the spending bill in the context of "defunding" the president's health care law, or delaying it, or delaying certain parts of it. The reason for not taking up a "clean" spending bill, free of any Obamacare provisions, was that Republicans were going to stick together for their principles, and that he would not bring a bill to the floor that didn't have the support of his Republican caucus.

Sunday's statement was qualitatively different. Boehner went from making philosophical arguments to a factual, numerical one.

Either it is true, or it is not -- but either way, it is provable.

First, the numbers: There are currently 432 members of the House. So 217 "yes" votes make a majority.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has a letter bearing the name of 195 Democrats ready to vote yes, meaning any combination of 22 votes drawn from the five Democrats who didn't sign the letter, and the 232 House Republicans, gets to that threshold.

So are there 22?

According to several media tallies, the answer is: probably yes.

The Washington Post has a list of 19 Republicans who have indicated they are yes votes and three leaning yes. The Huffington Post's list has 23 Republicans ready to vote yes.

But these lists only capture those Republicans either brave enough or foolish enough to say publicly they will do something the Tea Party faction of their party opposes, without there being any definite vote in the offing. New York GOP Rep. Peter King argues that should a clean bill actually be brought to the floor, that would be the signal for other Republicans to jump on the bandwagon, resulting in as many as 150 Republican yes votes.

Of course, "whip" counts by media organizations are probably not the most reliable way to gauge the prospects of legislation. And a statement of intention isn't the same as an actual vote. Then again, Boehner and his top leaders have shown their inability to count votes, too (think "Plan B" on the fiscal cliff deal; farm bill; transportation spending bill).

And it's exactly that proven inability to assess, let alone control, his own caucus, that lets Boehner's critics challenge his conclusion. President Obama, for one, was quick with a response Monday: prove it.

"Call a vote right now and let's see what happens," Obama said.

S.V. Dáte is the congressional editor on NPR's Washington Desk.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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