Debt ceiling: how John Boehner and the Republicans could end up winners

The surrender by Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling can be seen as a sign of strength. He felt confident enough to buck his own caucus and could be setting the GOP on a stronger footing for the midterm elections.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio may have looked defeated Tuesday when he relented and agreed to hold a “clean” debt ceiling vote, with no strings attached. Suddenly, three years of confrontation with the White House over the growing federal debt melted away.

But in fact, the move can be seen as a demonstration of Speaker Boehner’s strength – and could set the Republicans on a stronger footing heading into the November midterm elections. With the Senate expected to pass the bill Wednesday, the threat of yet another round of fiscal brinkmanship is suddenly gone, along with the risk that Republicans would be blamed yet again for appearing willing to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk.

“I think Boehner’s calculation was not, ‘This might cost me my job,’ but, ‘I am now strong enough to put a piece of legislation on the floor that my caucus opposes and be strengthened by it,’ ” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The bill passed the House Tuesday 221 to 201, with mostly Democrats in the majority. Gone was the informal “Hastert rule,” in which the Republican speaker would only move legislation that had “the majority of the majority” in support.  Also gone was the “Boehner rule” – no debt ceiling increase without the equivalent dollar amount in budget cuts.

Not coincidentally, Boehner has also taken immigration reform off the table, a divisive issue among Republicans. GOP leaders have said that the issue must be addressed before the 2016 presidential election, or the Republican nominee will be hard put to earn enough Latino votes to win. But in the 2014 midterms, the Latino vote is not central to most competitive races. Republicans are almost certain to keep control of the House and have a good shot at retaking the Senate without addressing immigration reform. So off to the sideline it goes, at least for now.

The tea party could also win from losing. It won’t get blamed for more brinkmanship, as it did during the government shutdown last October. And its supporters say they’re newly energized to fight the Republican establishment in the primaries.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a tea party standard-bearer, is vowing to filibuster the debt ceiling bill in the Senate, but analysts say Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada shouldn’t have a problem mustering the 60 votes needed to halt debate and pass the bill.   

Senator Cruz could also come out a winner. He can stage his filibuster, pleasing his tea party constituency, without threatening the bill from ultimately passing and making himself the center of negative attention, as he did during the government shutdown.

The question, then, is what next for the Republicans. They have made clear that their No. 1 rallying cry for the midterms is Obamacare, which remains unpopular with the public. But is that enough to carry the party all the way to November?

“The elections are eight months away, and that’s a long time,” Mr. Jillson says. “The Republicans have no big accomplishments, no big agenda. The economy is mending, markets are stabilized and moving up ... though unemployment is high.”

The key Senate races are likely to boil down to individual factors, foremost among them the strength of the candidates. Democrats are expected to lose a handful of seats, but it’s roughly 50-50 that Republicans can make the net gain of six seats to take control.

If Republicans do take the Senate, it will be a new day, one that Republicans hope will give their approach to big issues – starting with the budget, debt, and entitlements -- a broader hearing.

“Hopefully we can win the Senate, and we can have a completely different conversation,” Rep. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican running for the Senate, tells The New York Times. 

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