President Obama says he has held substantial talks with House Speaker John Boehner about raising the debt ceiling, and the Democratic president suggests that he has felt at numerous turns as if he and the Republican Speaker were on the verge doing a deal.
But the deal never quite happens. And Friday afternoon, Boehner abandoned any pretense of trying to reach an agreement with the White House. Instead, he bent to the most extreme fringe of the House Republican Caucus and crafted a bogus bill that passed the House early Friday evening but was rejected within hours by the Senate.
It’s not that Boehner is a bait-and-switch artist, teasing the president along and then substituting a new plan at the last minute. In fact, there’s nothing Boehner would like better than to cut the deal with Obama and get back to the golf course.
Boehner’s fight was never with the president.
It is with his own caucus, and with a Republican base that is prepared to punish anyone who makes nice with Obama. And Friday’s charade in the House confirmed that the extremists have the upper hand.
The trouble, as has become all too evident, is that Boehner has never been fully in charge of the House Republican Caucus. As Obama explains—accurately, if not beneficially for the speaker: “I think Speaker Boehner has been very sincere about trying to do something big. I think he’d like to do something big. His politics within his caucus are very difficult—you’re right. And this is part of the problem with a political process where folks are rewarded for saying irresponsible things to win elections or obtain short-term political gain, when we actually are in a position to try to do something hard we haven’t always laid the groundwork for.”
Yes, yes, of course, House Speakers are supposed to be the bosses of the chamber. But, even by the unusually low standards that are going to apply when it comes to early-twenty-first-century Republican House Speakers—two words: Denny Hastert—Boehner is going to rate as a footnote.
Boehner is a placeholder Speaker. He did not climb the leadership ladder with his style or strength. He did so by hanging around, collecting the checks and maintaining the pay-to-play machine in a manner that generally satisfied Wall Street and rank-and-file members. But no one expected anything more than muddling management from Boehner, and now he is struggling to deliver even that.
Pressured by his caucus to fight with the president—rather than accept the overly generous concessions the White House placed on the table — Boehner struggled to come up with his own plan for making enough cuts to satisfy the Republican base and secure the necessary votes to raise the for debt ceiling by August 2. But the erstwhile Speaker got the math wrong, earning a bad report from the Congressional Budget Office and squandering whatever confidence he might have hoped to inspire.