Get nervous: The fate of the country is in John Boehner's hands

With a Senate deal imminent, the speaker has a choice to make: His job or our economy. He could go either way

Published October 14, 2013 6:42PM (EDT)

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

Minding the caveat that fluid events are fluid and thus subject to flowing to unexpected places, it looks like Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are a hair's breadth from a deal to reopen the government and extend the debt limit for several months.

If they ink it today, they can probably pass it before Thursday, at which point the Treasury Department will run out of headroom under the debt limit and the country will be at the mercy of its lenders.

That raises a troubling question: What the hell happens in the House?

You may have noticed things over there aren't exactly spinning like a top. And yet the fate of the country will soon be in the hands of its leaders. Is there any reason to believe the House won't biff it?

Unfortunately, the only evidence we have to go on is that John Boehner has never explicitly invoked the Hastert Rule over the debt limit and government funding bills (like he has over, say, immigration reform), and he's publicly foreclosed on allowing the country to default. Everything else is extrapolation.

It stands to reason that GOP dead-enders will oppose any bipartisan deal -- they're serious about this extortion business -- and might even threaten to defrock Boehner if he defies them. But as weak as his control of the House is, Boehner's still officially the speaker -- and as long as he's officially the speaker, he controls the floor.

The logical leap (really, the assumption) everyone's making is that Boehner will put the Senate plan on the floor before midnight, rather than kowtow to the dead-enders to preserve his speakership. There are almost certainly 217-plus votes in the House for any deal that comes out of the Senate, which means we'll only crash through the debt limit deadline if Boehner chooses to let the country default the same way he chose to shut down the government.

That would be a truly ignominious act. The operating assumption at the White House -- and I think basically everywhere -- is that Boehner's self-dealing enough to shut down the government for personal reasons, but not to blow past the debt limit. He might futz around ahead of the deadline, try to send the bill back to the Senate with riders that the Senate will strip and go a few rounds of ping-pong like he did on September 30.

But when time's up, he'll put the Senate plan on the floor and get out of the way. It looks like that assumption is about to be tested.

By 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 ------------------------------------------

Debt Limit Default Government Shutdown Harry Reid John Boehner Mitch Mcconnell