John Boehner’s secret

He knows a debt default will ravage the economy, but can he stave one off without losing his job?

Topics: Opening Shot, John Boehner, Debt ceiling, Barack Obama,

According to Politico’s reporting, John Boehner “will never allow a (debt) default, even if it puts his leadership position at risk.” The speaker, supposedly, understands the catastrophic economic fallout that a default would unleash and is busily trying to convince his fellow House Republicans to look elsewhere for leverage in their ongoing fiscal fight with President Obama and Democrats.

There’s good reason to believe this reporting, since virtually no one outside the far-right echo chamber has any illusions about the consequences of failing to extend the debt ceiling. But could it really come to such a stark choice for Boehner: Stave off a default and lose his job as speaker or allow one and get to hang around?

There are a few ways of looking at Boehner’s dilemma right now. As the fiscal cliff fight seemed to make clear, the majority of the House Republican Conference is actually (and quietly) a lot like Boehner – members who are ideologically conservative but who recognize how destructive Tea Party orthodoxy has become, both from a governing standpoint and in terms of the party’s overall image. But, like Boehner, they’re still scared of defying it, of being branded traitors to the cause, and of losing their jobs to Tea Party-backed primary challenges. This led to the January 1 spectacle, when the vast majority of House Republicans voted against the fiscal cliff deal – even as Boehner was assuring the public that most of them wanted it to pass.

It raises a question as the debt ceiling battle takes shape: Even if most House Republicans understand the necessity of raising the borrowing limit, how many of them will actually be willing to go on the record doing so if it means encouraging a primary challenge?

Some of this depends on the context. Obama has been adamant that he won’t engage in any direct negotiations over the debt ceiling, a departure from the summer of 2011, the last time we flirted with default. (Arguably, Obama did also negotiate over the debt ceiling last month, demanding first that any fiscal cliff deal include a permanent end to debt ceiling brinksmanship, then signaling he’d accept a one- or two-year extension, and then finally signing a deal that left the debt ceiling untouched.) But there are several other deadlines looming too: The $1.2 trillion sequester, scheduled to kick in on March 1, and the late-March expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government. Plus, Obama has consistently demonstrated a desire to strike a sweeping compromise with Republicans on taxes and safety net spending – some version of the “grand bargain” he and Boehner nearly agreed to in ‘11.

So there’s a chance that the next few weeks will bring progress toward a deal that Republicans could live with – one that would give Boehner cover to push through some kind of debt ceiling extension with Republican support and without fear of losing his speakership.

That said, the closer you look at the concessions that would be required to pull off a deal like this, the harder it is to see it happening. Republicans have taken serious abuse from their base for the fiscal cliff deal, which included a modest tax hike but deferred big questions about Social Security, Medicare and spending in general. Thus, GOP leaders are now insisting that any new agreement must address spending cuts only – with taxes completely off the table. But the Obama administration believes the fiscal cliff tax hikes were just a down payment, and that any spending cuts in a new deal will be off-set – dollar for dollar – by increased revenue. Add in the continuing refusal of Republicans to spell out what, specifically, they want cut from Medicare and Social Security, and the prospects of a deal dim further.

This is what could lead to the doomsday scenario for Boehner that Politico outlined. If no “grand bargain” materializes, the first deadline we’ll hit will be the debt ceiling, about a month from now. Boehner and other influential Republicans are apparently trying hard to convince Tea Party true-believers to use the other deadlines – the sequester and the C.R. expiration – to make their stand on taxes, given the havoc that would be caused by a default.

If a solid chunk of House conservatives buy into this – and if they are backed by opinion-shaping voices on the right like Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint and Fox News – then Boehner should be safe. He can get a debt ceiling hike through and then force a showdown with Obama less dire overtones. In that event, the worst that would happen is that the sequester as currently constituted would go into effect, delivering a blow to the economy – but nothing nearly as severe as a default. Or the C.R. would expire and the government would shut down in the absence of a new agreement. It’s just a guess, but if the 1995 shutdown (Clinton vs. Gingrich) is any clue, public opinion would side against the GOP and quickly yield a deal more favorable to the White House’s terms. Either way, Boehner would probably get credit from the right for putting up a real fight.

But if the true believers can’t be talked out of forcing a debt ceiling showdown, Boehner could be in serious trouble with his conference. Without a deal with Obama to sell, he’d be left to put a last-minute bill on the floor raising the debt ceiling. He’d probably be able to get enough Republicans to go along with him (all of them taking a chance on a possible 2014 primary challenge), but the risk of a coup would be real.

That said, there is something that might save Boehner in such a situation: Obama, who seems to get nervous and deal-happy when deadlines approach. He stepped in at the last minute to cut a fiscal cliff deal with Mitch McConnell a few weeks ago, undercutting Harry Reid and Senate Democrats in the process. If a debt default were days away, it’s not hard to see Obama suddenly making serious concessions to Boehner and the GOP – cuts to the safety net that would infuriate the Democratic base but would be enough to allow Boehner to sell the plan to his conference.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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