With debt limit, John Boehner could be facing his defining moment

House Speaker John Boehner has struggled to manage his tea party wing for years. But with the debt limit showdown, his ability – or failure – to find a solution could define his legacy.

Evan Vucci/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives for a news conference after a House GOP meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

It’s quite possible that the events of the next few days will define House Speaker John Boehner’s political legacy and his place in history.

Does that sound a bit over-dramatic? Maybe, but as of Tuesday it looks as if Mr. Boehner is the key Washington player who will determine whether the US defaults on its debts. Whether he’s willing or able to do so, and what that means for his chaotic GOP conference, are things that could reverberate in the US economy and government for a long time to come and overshadow other notable events of Boehner’s career.

Here’s the state of play: In recent days Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell have been working on a fiscal deal to (temporarily) reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. The basic structure of the deal involves discussions for a longer-term budget and tax play as well as some minor tax changes for Obamacare.

But conservative House Republicans consider this plan to be surrender. So Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership on Tuesday began a quick-step process to see if they can produce their own bill before the Senate presents them with a fait accompli.

That’s caused the Senate leaders to hit the pause button on their own talks, as they wait to see what Boehner can produce. Thus, at the moment, it’s the speaker of the House who has the legislative steering wheel in his hands.

Problem is, he’s having a hard time rounding up votes. Conservatives were cool to Boehner’s opening proposal, which would have reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling on the Senate’s schedule, and added a two-year delay in Obamacare’s medical device tax, plus elimination of federal payments toward the health insurance of members of Congress and the cabinet.

“There are no decisions about what exactly we will do,” said Boehner at a brief press conference following a Tuesday morning conference of the House GOP.

The House leadership is still aiming for a vote as early as Tuesday evening. They’ve dropped the delay in the medical device tax, according to Robert Costa of the National Review. Conservatives considered that “crony capitalism” which their constituents would not consider a victory.

It’s possible that congressional staff will be added to the list of people losing their federal health care contributions. And a House bill would likely include a provision temporarily barring the Treasury from using “extraordinary measures” to shift around government funds in an attempt to avoid default.

Boehner is “treading carefully,” writes the well-sourced Mr. Costa. “According to his allies, he’s still hoping to bring the House’s plan to the floor tonight, and he thinks it can pass, as long as a few elements of the proposal are tinkered with.”

If Boehner can pass something, it might create additional leverage for Senator McConnell in his talks with Senator Reid. But Reid has already said he’s vehemently opposed to stripping the employer health subsidy from congressional staff. And the White House on Tuesday slammed Boehner’s effort, calling it a “partisan attempt to appease a small group of Tea Party Republicans.”

If Boehner fails, it’s Reid who might gain leverage in the Senate.

In any case, the Senate might – in fact, probably will – make changes in any House bill. What will Boehner do then? Would he allow a bill opposed by conservatives to come up for a vote on the House floor?

The fiscal crisis has lasted weeks, but Boehner’s problem hasn’t changed. He has struggled to unify House Republicans unless he proposes legislation that won’t pass the Senate or be signed by President Obama. If he accepts a compromise bill that passes his own chamber with Democratic support, his “speakership would effectively be over,” writes Washington Post political expert Chris Cillizza.

And the clock is ticking. The speaker’s time for maneuvering will soon be over.

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