End Game: John Boehner Doesn’t Even Have to Cave

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Flickr/ sayednairb

Seven days into a government shutdown, and 9 days away from a potentially catastrophic breach of the nation’s debt limit, and the question everyone is asking is: who will blink first?

The White House says that it absolutely will not negotiate over a debt limit hike. They see it as imperative to delegitimize the tactic of using the threat of default to squeeze policy concessions out of the majority once and for all. For the administration, this is much more than a partisan spat – they see this series of forced crises as a fundamental threat to our democratic system, an approach that has the potential to permanently alter the balance of power between the White House and Congress, and between the House and the Senate. They believe that if they give anything substantial to House Republicans in exchange for a short-term deal funding the government, we’ll just end up in the same situation a few months from now. Lurching from showdown to showdown will become a new norm in Washington, DC.

The only way to delegitimize nullification-through-brinksmanship is to force the GOP to back down without winning anything (or without winning anything more than a symbolic, face-saving concession that everyone will see as such).

On the other side, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can’t get his caucus to vote for anything that doesn’t win them significant policy concessions. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) said last week in a much cited interview. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

That position is being shored up by a significant bloc of GOP lawmakers in the House who represent overwhelmingly conservative districts and fear primary challenges from their right – backed by deep-pocketed outside groups that demand a hardline –if they don’t hold fast.

But it’s also been widely reported that there are enough votes in the House to pass a clean budget resolution, and presumably a clean debt limit hike, with mostly Democrats and a handful of Republican moderates. So far, John Boehner has refused to bring a bill to the floor, insisting that he will only consider legislation that has the support of most Republicans.

According to the conventional wisdom, Boehner will face a revolt from within his own ranks and lose his speakership if he folds and passes a bill with mostly Democratic votes (although Jonathan Bernstein argues that Boehner’s got the safest job in Washington because nobody wants to deal with the messy caucus he has to wrangle).

So what is the end-game? Democrats have offered what’s known as a discharge petition which would force Boehner to allow a vote on a clean budget resolution, but it requires the support of a couple of dozen Republican lawmakers, and that’s unlikely to happen. And because of various procedural rules, it won’t be effective for lifting the debt ceiling before the October 17 deadline.

But there are other procedural tricks available if at least 17 Republican lawmakers join with a united Democratic caucus to force a vote. And that’s where a potential escape hatch lies. A couple of dozen Republican lawmakers are on record supporting a clean resolution that would end the impasse. Many in this group don’t come from deep red districts – about 20 representatives come from districts with lots of federal workers in Virginia, or from purple districts in New Jersey, New York, California and Minnesota. They’re not immune to tea party challenges, but they are much more secure from threats on the right and their constituents aren’t pressing them to keep up the fight in the same way as their colleagues are being pushed.

What this means is that John Boehner doesn’t need to bring a bill to the floor himself – he doesn’t need to cave publicly. He can quietly signal to this group that they can join Democrats without fear of retaliation by the party’s leadership, and then he can hold a press conference and weep and yell about he’s been betrayed when the deed is done.

So far, those Republicans who want to vote for a clean budget resolution haven’t bucked their party’s leadership – they haven’t walked the talk. And a number of informed commenters have pointed out that they have little incentive to do so. Those points are well taken, but premature. They have every reason to remain disciplined now, nine days before we breach the debt limit. Soon, the financial markets will start reacting violently as we get closer to the moment of truth. GOP donors will be calling friendly legislators, and they’ll become more frantic as the day of reckoning approaches.

The administration sees this as a do-or-die moment for the relevancy of the executive branch. Obama is not seeking re-election, and his team knows that the polls show that the other side will take more blame for a disaster.

So in the eleventh hour, either Boehner allows a vote on a debt limit hike, there’s a mutiny by Democrats and a handful of Republicans, or we find out what happens when investors lose confidence in the full faith and credit of the US government.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Andre Shoumatoff

    The largest issue with this article is that the author forgets about the powerful and revenge-seeking nature of the powerful lobby funding the ~20 Teahadists holding the nation hostage right now. They will work to hurt Boehner and his reputation and status as the house speaker, possibly permanently, even though what this article suggests is the right thing to do.

  • Anonymous

    Boehner needs to start doing his job instead of worrying about keeping it. He will find a decision to do the right thing will be genuinely liberating. Put those awful tea party twits in their place.

  • Anonymous

    The author hasn’t forgotten this at all–he writes specifically about this threat. The point is that a small minority of the Republican party–barely 5% of the entire House–has already hurt Boehner’s reputation, as well as that of the Republicans and the House as an institution. Given a choice between losing the Speakership, or remaining the leader of a party that could ruin the U.S. financial markets–and as a result lose a majority in the House and the Speaker’s role with it–he may well decide that his legacy is better served by the former.

  • Anonymous

    If at least 17 Republican lawmakers join with a united Democratic caucus to force a vote
    then the Koch brothers will financially back 17 opponents of those who dared to defy Koch Orders. If the 17 were actually defeated by democrats, then the Koch brothers would lose their grip on the House. I am not sure that any republicans dare defy the Koch brothers. Certainly not Boehner.

  • Nibiru

    To my great chagrin and sorrow, I can’t help but agree with you. So disappointed that Obama has not proven to have a backbone or fire in the belly.

  • Anonymous

    That’s because you haven’t been listening.

  • Anonymous

    Every single politician claims to hold the national debt as a high priority. To say that there’s “not even a sense that they need to balance their budget” is simply foolish.

    Two unpaid for wars and the Bush tax cuts (which completely failed to trickle down – quite the opposite) are being paid for now, and will be a burden for many years to come. And yet, government spending under Obama, including his signature stimulus bill, is rising at a 1.4% annualized pace — slower than at any time in nearly 60 years.

    The debt can be addressed most reasonably by making the ultra-wealthy pay their fair share, and by decreasing our outrageous military spending. Holding the economy hostage is not a reasonable method of addressing this long term problem, especially since it makes the problem worse. You are kidding yourself if you believe there is anything behind this shutdown than sabotage. Republicans simply want to make the Obama administration look bad, so they’ll have better luck in the next elections.

  • Anonymous

    What is so legitimate about it?
    If GOP kidnapped Barack’s daughters and made the same demands they are now, would that be legitimate? It only becomes legitimatized once ransom is paid.

    Threats to severely damage our countries economic future unless concessions would only be legitimized when Dems agree to make concessions for that extortion.

    14th amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.”

  • Anonymous

    Very well put.
    Glad to know there’s intelligent life out there.
    Some days I wonder.

  • Anonymous

    Negotiations with a terrorist:
    “Step away from the bomb.”
    “I’m going to blow ‘er, unless you do exactly what I say.”
    “We’ll be happy to talk to negotiate your grievances after you step away from the bomb. Why would you want to harm your fellow Americans?”
    “Those left standing will thank me for it someday. Jefferson said ‘you’ve got to spill some blood once in a while or something like that’”.
    “Ever occur to you Jefferson used to drink like a fish, especially after Presidency? Founding Fathers disagreed vehemently on lots of subjects.”
    “God is good. I’m going to blow ‘er. I‘m just doing what my Mom ,Grover Koch, taught me.”
    “Come down, bring the country off the ledge and we’ll talk like adults”
    Kablooie..