August 28, 2013
Speaker John Boehner (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Speaker John Boehner (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Boxed in by his caucus’ demand to defund Obamacare on one side, and a steeled White House on the other, House Speaker John Boehner seems ready to throw in the towel and enter the last phase of the Kabuki dance he’s staged for the benefit of his insolent Republican base.

Of course, he won’t say this, and his recent comments at a fundraiser in Idaho appear on their face to be a doubling down, but, when read correctly, they actually suggest the opposite. “I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms [to mandatory entitlement spending] that are greater than the increase in the debt limit,” he said yesterday.

This entitlement demand is mostly new. While we got hints that Boehner might put Social Security and Medicare on the table back in early July, we’ve hardly heard a peep about it since. Instead, Republicans have been focused defunding Obamacare.

As Josh Barro writes, insisting on entitlement cuts is often Boehner’s last move before capitulation, because he knows it’s a ransom demand that will never be paid. He did it in December, when spokesperson Michael Steel used almost the exact same words: “Any debt limit increase would require cuts and reforms of a greater amount.” (The next month, the House voted overwhelmingly to bypass the debt ceiling and got none of those cuts.) And Boehner did it 2011. That time, he won the overall battle, but he still didn’t get any entitlement cuts.

Cutting the safety net is anathema to Democrats, and in the unlikely scenario that they’d do it, they certainly aren’t going to rush it through in the perhaps 15 legislative work days Congress has before it hits the October debt ceiling deadline. Boehner knows this.

And he’s done nothing to suggest he’s serious about entitlement cuts. There was a brief, peculiar moment this spring when the White House not only was willing to talk social safety net reform, but actually put cuts to Social Security in their budget. And Democratic congressional leaders suggested they’d deliver enough votes to pass something. What did Boehner do? He rejected the proposal out of hand, sight unseen, and called it “no way to lead and move the country forward.” (That was basically the White House’s expectation all along, they claimed when liberals threatened mutiny.)

If Boehner’s entitlement demand was an empty threat in 2011 and 2012, and he didn’t take up his best chance at it in 2013, then it has to be even more of a bluff today as the landscape has titled decidedly against Republicans, MSNBC’s Suzy Khim notes. The deficit is falling fast and a clear majority of Americans opposed to defunding Obamacare, according to a new Kaiser poll out today, so the White House holds most of the cards. Both they and Boehner know that a government shutdown our default will be worse for Republicans than for Democrats, so this time the president is refusing to negotiate with the hostage takers.

So now, all that’s left is for Boehner to somehow bring his base along. He doesn’t necessarily need their votes, but he needs to drop the pitchforks for moment. Brian Beutler previews how it may go down:

Boehner introduces legislation that both increases (or extends) the debt limit and includes some goodies for conservatives that make the bill a non-starter with Senate Democrats and the President (maybe a year-long delay of the individual mandate — let your imaginations run wild); that bill fails on the House floor; everyone panics; faced with no better option, Boehner breaks the Hastert rule, puts a tidy, Senate-passed debt limit bill on the floor, and we all dress up as Speaker Pelosi for Halloween.

Of course, Beutler notes, plenty of things could go wrong. For instance, Boehner could decide that he’ll refuse to break the Hastert rule (meaning he won’t put anything on the floor that isn’t supported by a majority of Republicans) under any circumstance.

He’s done that when it comes to immigration reform, where he could pass a bill tomorrow if he were willing to use Democratic votes. He knows that every time he breaks Hastert, he enrages the Republican base a little bit more, so it’s possible that he’s been saving it up for this moment, which he must have known would come.