In debt ceiling fight, Boehner lays himself on the line

As the debt ceiling standoff veers toward potential crisis, House Speaker John A. Boehner finds himself on a path that could end one of two ways: catapulting him and his party forward in the run-up to a presidential election, or imperiling his hold on the only position of power he ever wanted in Washington.

It’s a spot of Boehner’s choosing: He dropped out of talks with the White House and pursued a Republican-only, House-led effort to lock in spending cuts and raise the $14.3-trillion debt ceiling by Aug. 2, when the Treasury says it will run short of money.

Boehner’s plan had been relegated to life support, threatening to take the Ohio Republican down with it, amid warnings of dire economic consequences for failing to act. But on Wednesday, with the crucial vote less than 24 hours away, he battled back against skepticism from unyielding conservatives and rejection by Democrats.

At a closed-door caucus of Republican House members, Boehner sought to motivate the few dozen wavering lawmakers whose votes he needs with a blunt message: “Get your ass in line,” he told them.


If the GOP majority approves his plan, Boehner will emerge as a cool political operative who somehow found a way to steer his caucus and its unruly freshman class to momentary unity.

If the bill fails, Boehner will have proved what conventional wisdom has long maintained: Neither he nor possibly anyone else on his leadership team can control the rambunctious, “tea party"-aligned Republicans who are redefining what it means to be a conservative in this country.

“John is making it clear. You go with the president, you go with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid or you go with John Boehner,” said Rep. Peter T. King, (R-N.Y.). “We vote it down, then we’ve got nothing left on our side.”

Republican leaders rushed to rewrite their bill Wednesday after the Congressional Budget Office said their spending cuts fell short of GOP claims. Late in the day, they announced they had found billions more, enough to reduce deficits by $915 billion over the next decade.


By comparison, the budget office found that Reid’s competing proposal would cut $2.2 trillion over that period. But about half would come from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — an approach Republicans deride as a gimmick.

Both parties ran into trouble because they had promised savings based on federal budgets from January, before Congress enacted cuts for the 2011 fiscal year. The budget office used more updated budget figures that accounted for earlier savings, which reduced the promised savings from both proposals.

Throughout weeks of the deficit debate, Boehner has worn many faces, from the self-described happy warrior to team coach, side-hugging his second in command.

But as he makes his case to rank-and-file lawmakers, the tools of persuasion utilized by an earlier generation of leaders have limited appeal. This new breed of conservative professes more allegiance to tea party supporters than to the establishment Republican Party represented by the speaker.


Congress has only days to pass legislation to allow a debt ceiling increase or risk repercussions across the U.S. economy and global financial system. But Boehner has crafted a proposal that appeals only to his caucus — many of whose members are skeptical.

Boehner and his leadership team have been pushing lawmakers to see the political big picture. In the meeting with Republicans on Wednesday, Boehner argued that his bill was not only the best offer on the table, but it also had the best chance of defeating their common political opponent: President Obama.

“We’re in a fight,” Boehner told the group, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting. “You’ve got to decide what side you’re fighting on.”

That message struck a chord with Rep. Richard Nugent, a freshman Republican from Florida, who is voting for the bill. Not only do Republicans win if the bill passes, he said. “The bonus is, the president loses.”


Boehner at the moment occupies a unique role as one of the nation’s most recognizable GOP leaders, particularly as Republican presidential contenders scrimmage before primary elections.

“He is the party,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), a longtime Boehner ally. “If he’s diminished, the party is diminished.”

In years past, House speakers would pull out all the stops in times like these — threatening, cajoling and intimidating lawmakers into compliance. Leaders could dangle the promise of special “earmarked” funds for projects back home to sweeten a deal.

But Boehner rode the populist tea party wave to power. His hold over these newcomers is fragile, and earmarks are now banned.


In leading his majority, Boehner allows a long leash, what Ronald Peters, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, calls the “let-it-play-out kind of speaker.”

One night this week, “Team Boehner” — about two dozen members of the speaker’s inner circle — huddled in his office. They compiled a list of wavering lawmakers, dividing up who should reach out to whom.

Boehner has reminded lawmakers of the favors he has done for them in Washington, noting their positions on preferred committees. In so many words, he is asking for their votes.

“I’ve never seen an instance where a speaker was so involved on day-to-day minutiae, on the details,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a 12-year veteran of the House. “His heart and soul is in here. There’s no doubt he has a lot at stake.”


Even if Boehner wins this battle, the war may remain a draw. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, Reid has declared the GOP bill “dead on arrival.” Obama has threatened a veto.

Some compromise may yet arise, and then Boehner will be tested anew: If the final product strays too far from GOP goals, will Republicans revolt? If he must rely on support from Democrats and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the minority leader, will it threaten his leadership?

“He’s in a terribly difficult situation,” Peters said. Even if the final product is a bill Republicans detest, he said, Boehner must show he can rally at least a majority of his GOP votes. “He’s speaker of the House. You got to get a bill.”