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.
Then Boehner resorted to bluster, announcing on right-wing talk radio that he was telling Republican House members to “get your asses in line” behind the new plan that he was cobbling together -- a plan that had no chance of winning the approval of the Democrats who control the Senate—let alone the president.
After several days of lining up asses, however, Boehner admitted Thursday that “we don’t have the votes.”
The Speaker was in trouble. He had no deal with the president and his caucus was in disarray.
Boehner could either do the responsible thing and try and work with the president, the Democrats in the House and more responsible Republicans and Democrats in the Senate -- or he could give up on being a meaningful player in the process.
Boehner gave up.
He bent to the extremists in order to wrangle the votes for a plan that has no chance in the Senate and no chance of being signed by the president.
Why? The answer was found in the running “whip list” of GOP House members. With House Democrats holding firm for a real plan, Boehner could afford to lose only twenty-three Republicans. As of Friday morning, the “whip list” counted 25 members who were opposed (firmly or leaning that way) and 32 more who were uncertain about whether they want to follow the Speaker’s lead.
To try and win over wavering members of his own caucus Friday, Boehner promised them the moon -- a plan that requires congressional approval of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is order to implement a two-stage increase in the debt ceiling.
That was sufficient to win the support Boehner needed in the House -- with a narrow 218-210 vote. But the shifts rendered the measure meaningless, as it will not be seriously considered by the Senate.
“They've basically given the right wing even more than what they had before,” observed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada,
Boehner's calculus was based. New York Senator Chuck Schumer explained, on an "absurd proposition."
“To get his conservatives back on the reservation at this point, he's adding all kinds of poison pills to his plan,” explained Schumer. “His new plan requiring that each house of Congress not vote on, but pass, a balanced budget amendment before any debt ceiling is raised will guarantee a default.”
Even if Boehner passed his newest new plan, it was going nowhere.
President Obama said as much Friday morning, when he essentially wrote Boehner out of the equation, explaining that: "What’s clear now is that any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan. It must have the support of both parties that were sent here to represent the American people -– not just one faction. It will have to have the support of both the House and the Senate. And there are multiple ways to resolve this problem. Senator Reid, a Democrat, has introduced a plan in the Senate that contains cuts agreed upon by both parties. Senator McConnell, a Republican, offered a solution that could get us through this. There are plenty of modifications we can make to either of these plans in order to get them passed through both the House and the Senate and would allow me to sign them into law..."
"Now, keep in mind," the president added, "this is not a situation where the two parties are miles apart. We’re in rough agreement about how much spending can be cut responsibly as a first step toward reducing our deficit. We agree on a process where the next step is a debate in the coming months on tax reform and entitlement reform –- and I’m ready and willing to have that debate. And if we need to put in place some kind of enforcement mechanism to hold us all accountable for making these reforms, I’ll support that too if it’s done in a smart and balanced way. So there are plenty of ways out of this mess. But we are almost out of time. We need to reach a compromise by Tuesday so that our country will have the ability to pay its bills on time, as we always have -- bills that include monthly Social Security checks, veterans’ benefits and the government contracts we’ve signed with thousands of businesses. Keep in mind, if we don’t do that, if we don’t come to an agreement, we could lose our country’s AAA credit rating, not because we didn’t have the capacity to pay our bills -- we do -- but because we didn’t have a AAA political system to match our AAA credit rating."
With Obama pointing to the Senate as the solution, Boehner was sidelined.
Why did the Speaker of the House become a spectator in the biggest budget fight so far this century?
Unfortunately for Boehner, it is easier to call for asses to “get in line” than to make it happen. As Boehner admits, there are some members of his caucus who prefer “chaos” to compromise—on the theory that if things get bad enough (think spiking mortgage and credit-card rates, to start) they might be able to force the White House to agree to a balanced budget amendment and other schemes to do away with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security
For all Boehner’s bluster, the most prominent member of the caucus he supposedly leads never budged.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was rejected earlier this year for a low-level leadership position in the caucus, is now a top-tier contender for the 2012 Republican presidetial nomination.
Bachmann is the unofficial chair of the GOP’s chaos caucus. She has for weeks promised to vote against any increase in the debt ceiling—even if that increase came as part of an agreement that concedes most major issues to the GOP.
“This Republican will not vote to raise the debt ceiling,” says Bachmann. “My colleagues will have to come to their own conclusion.”
Bachmann may be difficult, but she is not dumb. She knows that the debt ceiling fight is really the first stage of the 2012 Republican presidential contest.
While Boehner was inclined toward compromise on the debt ceiling issue, the Republican base—ginned up by Rush, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and various and sundry Fox “personalities”—thinks “compromise” is a four-letter word.
Standing with Boehner gets Bachmann nothing—especially when another contender, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, is staking out an absolutist stance.
Standing against Boehner scores points with the base. And, going into the Iowa “Straw Poll”—a key test of sentiments among first-caucus-state Republicans—Bachmann is not about to answer the Speaker’s “get your asses in line” call.
Neither are other Republicans who are thinking about 2012 party primaries for House and Senate seats -- especially now that the Tea Party movement is making noises about mounting primary challenges to GOP incumbents who back Boehner's plan. These days, the GOP is more of a fight club than a Grand Old Party. And any member who gets his or her “ass in line” with Boehner might find it tossed out at the next election.
Even as Boehner was wrangling caucus members in Washington, Bachmann was roaming around Iowa declaring that the Speaker’s “premises are wrong.” The grassroots Republicans that she speaks to were cheering Bachmann on.
That was a big problem for Boehner, because undecided Republicans in the House found themselves faced with a choice between the Speaker’s “get your asses in line” call and the sweet sound of the base cheering for Bachmann’s absolutism—and chaos.
And as Boehner bent toward an extreme position in order to secure votes for a House plan that will not go anywhere this weekend, chaos won.