Has John Boehner surrendered on debt ceiling?

House Speaker John Boehner may be thinking of raising the debt ceiling with the help of some Democratic votes – via a bill that includes tweaks to Obamacare, a tax-reform plan, and some reductions in entitlements.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to a Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.

There are numerous press reports Friday that Speaker John Boehner has told some Republican House members that he won’t hang tough on a debt ceiling fight. He’ll agree to use a combination of Democratic and establishment Republican votes to hike the ceiling so as to avoid damaging America’s credit and economy, according to these stories.

Is this really the case? Because if it’s true, that means the worst-case scenario of the current Washington fiscal crisis – a US default on its debts in the midst of a government shutdown – won’t come to pass.

We’ll get to our judgment in a second. First, a public-service reminder: The debt limit problem is separate from the fiscal dispute that’s shut down the government, strictly speaking.

The government is shut down because the appropriations that pay for its activities expired at the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30), and Congress hasn’t passed a funding bill to keep that money flowing. The debt limit arrives around Oct. 17, when the United States hits a legal limit on the amount of money it can borrow, meaning the Treasury can’t pay many debts already incurred.

The government shutdown has closed national parks. A breach of the debt limit could stop the timely delivery of Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements, and it could freak out world financial markets dependent on the dollar as a presumed currency of stability in a chaotic world.

OK, back to Speaker Boehner. We’d say the stories that he’s soft on the debt limit are mostly true but have important holes, meaning some partisan fights on the issue might yet lie ahead.

First, consider their source. The stories appear to be based on the word of some Republican moderates reporting what Boehner has told them in private. That could be wishful thinking on their part. It could reflect Boehner just telling them what they want to hear.

Second, look at reality – Boehner certainly has. Any vote to raise the debt ceiling will require Democratic support. In that sense, he’s just telling the truth.

There is a hard core of 20 to 30 conservatives who will never vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances. They haven’t in the past, and they won’t in the future. Period. They might not vote for a debt ceiling hike even if the increase has provisions that eliminate Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Mike Allen at Politico on Friday morning quotes an e-mail from a Democratic staffer to this effect. “What everybody is missing is Boehner didn’t say anything new about defaulting. He was always going to need Dem votes to pass a debt ceiling,” the aide writes.

Another thing Boehner didn't say anything about was the exact nature of what his presumed debt ceiling legislation would look like.

Boehner has told other House Republicans that what he’s looking for is some kind of larger deal on tax reform, entitlement reform, and spending reductions in return for an agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

That’s a goal that the speaker has sought for years in negotiations with the White House, only to see it dissolve at the last moment.

“Boehner’s chief goal is conference unity as the debt limit nears, and he’s looking at potentially blending a government-spending deal and debt-limit agreement into a larger budget package,” wrote the National Review’s Robert Costa, whose reporting has provided an invaluable window into House GOP thinking on the current crisis, on Wednesday.

All these reports can coexist without contradiction. Boehner could be thinking of raising the debt ceiling with some Democratic votes – but via a bill that includes some tweaks to Obamacare, a plan for tax reform, some reductions in entitlements, and perhaps increases in some domestic programs.

The speaker’s problem is that there is not actually a clear path to that goal. If he does not include major changes to Obamacare, he’ll lose tea party conservatives. If he does, he’ll lose pretty much the whole Democratic caucus. If he includes revenue increase of some sort in his “grand bargain,” he could lose a majority of his own party. If he does not include concessions on the revenue side, he won’t get Democrats, and so forth and so on.

Did we mention that the White House has insisted that it will accept only a "clean" debt ceiling increase without any added provisions whatsoever?

Meanwhile, conservatives are becoming increasingly suspicious that Boehner, in the end, will cave. Friday’s stories about his debt ceiling position will only increase that feeling. Right now Boehner surely has 20 moderate Republicans willing to vote with Democrats to pass a clean debt ceiling hike, writes right-leaning Allahpundit at Hot Air.

“The only obstacle to passing one is his own personal reluctance to face the political consequences from the right of bringing that hike to the floor," Allahpundit writes. "Show of hands: Who thinks that’ll stop him after two more weeks of tremendous pressure from the center and the left?”

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