House's John Boehner folds on debt ceiling. Wimpy or wise move?

For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner has been trying to find an add-on to debt ceiling legislation that his caucus could agree to. His problem is that House Republicans were split over which such initiative to adopt.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014. On Tuesday, Boehner announced that he'll bring to the chamber floor a clean, no-strings-attached bill to raise the US debt ceiling.

John Boehner is surrendering on the debt ceiling. On Tuesday, the Republican speaker of the House announced that he’ll bring to the chamber floor a clean, no-strings-attached bill to raise the US debt ceiling, perhaps as early as Tuesday evening. That means he’s given up the effort to find a GOP-backed initiative to add to the legislation in an effort to win a concession from the White House.

The suddenness of this capitulation was unexpected. After Speaker Boehner announced the move at a caucus meeting, he was met with stunned silence, according to press reports.

Boehner said he’d told House minority leader Nancy Pelosi that Democrats will need to provide the bulk of the votes for the clean debt bill. A handful of Republicans will also have to vote “yea” if it is to pass, Boehner said at a Tuesday press conference.

“We’re going to have to find them. I’ll be one of them,” he told reporters.

For weeks, the House speaker has been trying to find an add-on his caucus could agree to. His problem is that the roiling collection of factions known as House Republicans was split over which such initiative to adopt.

Elimination of the “risk corridors” in Obamacare, which protect insurers against unforeseen loss? That couldn’t attract the requisite 218 GOP House votes. A provision to order construction of the Keystone XL pipeline? Ditto on the 218 threshold.

Boehner’s last effort involved linking the debt ceiling to a plan to reverse a reduction in cost-of-living increases for military pensions. But Republicans had approved a budget plan with that cost-containing measure just weeks ago. In the end, so many House GOP members were conflicted about this final choice that Boehner just threw up his hands.

“It’s the fact that we don’t have 218 votes. And when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing. We’ve seen that before, and we’ll see it again,” he said.

Tea party groups may see Boehner’s latest move as yet more evidence that he’s a squish who needs to be replaced. The Senate Conservatives Fund is already calling for the speaker’s ouster. After the announcement Tuesday, this fundraising group issued a statement that said Boehner had to go.

“Republicans are giving up because they know that winning is impossible when their leaders are determined to lose,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, some on the left indulged in a bit of schadenfreude at Boehner’s discomfiture. Following last fall’s government shutdown debacle, it’s clear the GOP House leadership won’t engage in another fiscal showdown anytime soon, they pointed out. Given that, Boehner had little leverage, meaning eventual passage of a clean debt bill was foreordained.

“Watching congressional Republicans stumble their way around the land mines of a debt limit increase and an immigration reform dilemma, it’s hard not to lose respect for their political skills,” writes Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore in the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog on Tuesday.

That said, it is still possible – maybe likely – that Boehner took the best exit door available from this situation.

For one thing, it means the debt limit issue gets disposed of quickly. Last year’s fiscal fight hurt GOP approval ratings. Even worse, from the party’s point of view, it overshadowed the first stumbling days of the Obamacare rollout. Now Boehner has shoveled away another fiscal problem at the moment the Affordable Care Act is in the news again, this time for the approval of yet more delays on the requirement that employers provide health insurance.

He’s also saved many GOP House members from taking a tough vote. Raising the debt ceiling may be the fiscally responsible route, considering that all it does is authorize payment for bills already incurred. But it’s still a symbol of government largess to many Republican voters. Now Boehner can hang the onus for the debt ceiling on Democrats, for the most part.

Meanwhile, the speaker spent a considerable amount of time at least trying to find an acceptable add-on. This could win him some personal credibility with tea party conservatives, some of whom felt from the beginning that the clean bill was inevitable and Boehner should just get on with it.

With debt ceiling done, Boehner can rally his members for a 2014 midterm election that might tilt decisively Republican. It’s almost unthinkable that Democrats will gain the seats necessary to take back the House, while control of the Senate depends on whether a few Democratic incumbents can win reelection in red-leaning states.

“The landscape presently couldn’t look much better for Republicans,” Mr. Kilgore writes.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.