John Boehner makes his final move

This is probably the penultimate twist in the latest debt limit saga. A massive GOP retreat -- but a greedy one

Published October 15, 2013 3:11PM (EDT)

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

This is probably the penultimate twist in the debt limit saga, both because there isn't much time left, and because this is John Boehner's last real move.

House Republican leaders, not content with back-seat status, and, as always, under pressure from conservative hardliners, will attempt to rush out a bill to increase the debt limit and reopen the government tonight.

In many ways, their plan mirrors the deal Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are nearing in the Senate. The debt limit would be increased until February 7 and funding for the government extended until January 15. It differs in three ways.

1) It will not delay a reinsurance fee on group health plans, which we described here as an unexpected win for labor. Senate Democrats have also dropped this measure at Republican insistence. It turns out that Republicans love tax cuts unless they're tax cuts that unions also like, in which case they don't like them. Instead, the House GOP plan will restore a two-year delay of the medical device tax.

2) It will include a modified version of the so-called Vitter amendment*. Instead of stripping members and aides of their health care compensation, this measure would only harm members and Obama administration principals, from the president down through the cabinet. Aides will be held harmless.

3) It does not guarantee formal budget negotiations between the House and Senate, suggesting House Republicans either want to limp along with a dysfunctional federal budget or try the fight all over again in February when the debt limit will have to be increased again.

The House plan would prohibit the Treasury Department from using extraordinary measures to stave off default -- measures it nearly exhausted in 2011 and have nearly exhausted today -- once it reaches the debt limit. Reid has been fighting against McConnell to preserve those measures, but the two remain locked in disagreement. Prohibiting these measures allows Republicans to schedule hostage crises like this with greater accuracy.

A quick process note and a few thoughts on whether this crosses Obama's hard line against offering unrequited concessions in the debt limit fight.

Starting with the latter: It comes close. But it probably crosses the line. I'll need to see more details to know for sure. And of course the White House will likely issue a policy statement today, declaring whether the president would or would not veto the bill. Early indications are that they're not supportive of it*.

One senior administration official once told me a big litmus test for Obama is whether the concessions Republicans demand would take it out of the public hide. Process concessions are fine, but not policy concessions, like program cuts. So the question is do members of Congress and cabinet officials count as regular citizens for those purposes? That's not clear. Is the device tax delay offset by some other source of revenue? Also not clear.

It's simultaneously the case that this plan constitutes a massive retreat by House Republicans, but also that in trying to pocket tiny concessions at the last minute, it might be too greedy, and thus cross Obama's bright line*.

But there's also perfectly good reason to question whether this plan will ever make it out of the House. GOP leaders want to vote on it today. It hasn't been whipped. It doesn't have support on the merits from House conservative. At a morning press conference, Boehner seemed anything but confident that he has the votes for it, returning repeatedly to the idea that the plan should be bipartisan. He thinks he needs Democratic votes. But if Obama opposes it -- a decent bet -- few if any Democrats will align with Boehner*. And if that's the case, the Reid-McConnell framework will be the dinghy everyone jumps into.

If it clears the House, Reid and Obama, and perhaps McConnell too, will have to decide whether they're OK with being jammed, or whether they want to volley it back to the House. With 60 votes, they'd be able to swap out the House position with a plan of their own. With 50 votes, Dems would probably be able to strike offending provisions unilaterally. Another important question: Would Ted Cruz or some other conservative Senate firebrand use the Senate rules to slow walk any bipartisan attempts to change it, pushing us past the Treasury Department's Thursday deadline?

We'll know by tonight. If it passes, and if the Senate then sends it back, Boehner would face a choice: put it on the floor, or dig in his heels, like he did during the shutdown fight, and send us careening into the debt limit.

*Update, 12:00 p.m.: It didn't take Democrats long to react to the House GOP debt limit plan, and thus for Boehner to begin dragging the outline to the right, aware that it will either pass with 217 Republican votes, or fail completely, leaving him at the mercy of the Senate.

Harry Reid called the House GOP position "a blatant attack on bipartisanship" and vowed that it "won't pass the Senate." Boehner is already reacting, scrounging for more GOP votes by promising to stick it to Congressional staff. National Review's Robert Costa reports that Boehner is reversing his position that aides should be held harmless in this fight, and will agree to nix the federal government's contribution to their health insurance as well. It could move further right still. And as before it may not pass anyhow.

During his press conference Tuesday morning, Boehner kept referring to his new salvo as "bipartisan," "bipartisan." Not, it seems, because it enjoys Democratic support, but because he thinks he needs it.

By Brian Beutler

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

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