John Boehner's clumsy endgame: House Republicans run for the exits

The only remaining questions are how high Republicans will lift the debt limit and when will they reopen government

By Brian Beutler

Published October 10, 2013 5:36PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                       (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
John Boehner (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The upshots from this morning's come-to-Jesus meeting of House Republicans leaves little doubt that the debt ceiling will be lifted essentially unconditionally, before the Treasury Department runs out of the headroom it needs to finance the government. The only remaining questions are, by how much, and will the government reopen at the same time.

If it were up to John Boehner, the answers would be "for six weeks" and "no." I imagine some politically minded Democrats aren't terribly upset by the idea of Republicans defusing the debt limit bomb, while allowing their self-destructive shutdown to drag on for weeks. But most Democrats just want to get all of this behind them: reopen the government now, and take the debt limit out of the realm of legislative horse trading for as long as possible.

Some liberals are understandably concerned that such a brief debt limit increase, offered with the implicit understanding that the parties will use the extension to mediate the budget, will simply draw the Dems into the hostage negotiations they've hoped to avoid all along. That's certainly possible. The tell will be if Republicans insist upon excluding revenues from the negotiators' official jurisdiction. But I think the analysis places too much emphasis on position at the expense of trajectory. As a single snapshot, it looks like Dems are setting themselves up to be mugged in six weeks. But run the reel and it's clear that Republicans are disarming their most extreme weapon.

And fortunately for Democrats, nothing's happened in the past 24 hours to make House Republicans any more competent than they have been throughout this crisis. They probably need help to avoid an immediate debt limit breach, and that means House and Senate Democrats can exert some control over the final outcome.

What Boehner has proposed to his conference is slightly bizarre. He wants to remove the threat of default until Nov. 22 but continue this economically damaging and politically disastrous shutdown until Democrats concede something ancillary to him to reopen the government. In the meantime, and on a separate track, he wants President Obama to commit to negotiating over the budget between now and Thanksgiving.

Boehner's essentially telling conservatives that if they want to keep fighting the shutdown fight they'll need to eat it on debt limit. Otherwise they'll probably lose both. And some conservatives seem to agree.

Think of it as a distorted and incoherent version of the Beutler plan. It more or less concedes that defaulting on the debt isn't an option, but doesn't create the proper environment for the unencumbered budget negotiations that will let everyone walk away claiming they got something they wanted. A statement from a White House official this morning explains the problem subtly. "Once Republicans in Congress act to remove the threat of default and end this harmful government shutdown, the President will be willing to negotiate on a broader budget agreement to create jobs, grow the economy, and put our fiscal house in order."

Emphasis mine. In other words, even if the plan Boehner presented to his conference passes the House and passes the Senate -- and indeed even if Obama signs it, which he probably would -- the budget negotiations would still have to wait. And if Obama won't agree to negotiate until the government's reopened it isn't even clear that Republicans will move ahead with the plan at all.

Thus, there are plenty of reasons to think things won't shake out as Boehner envisions, even if he puts his plan on the House floor this week. For it to become law Boehner would either need 217 Republicans to support it as is, or an undetermined number of Democrats to bail him out. Even if it passes on the first go, though, the Senate might amend it -- to change the length of the increase or more likely to fund the government. But several House Republicans are already grumbling about it. And if they can't be whipped into line, then one of two things will happen: Either Boehner will turn for help to Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, who will likely withhold their support unless Boehner agrees to end the shutdown; or he'll abnegate responsibility for the debt limit altogether -- stalk off the field like he has in the past.

Fortunately the House isn't acting in isolation. Over in the Senate, Harry Reid is preparing to advance a year-long debt limit extension. If Boehner's plan capsizes, that'll be the only ship sailing.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Debt Limit Default Government Shutdown Harry Reid John Boehner Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer