What does House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) do now? What direction will he take his speakership?
Boehner failed to pass his proposal to raise the debt limit on Thursday. Despite the fact that the bill had already been delayed a day so that Boehner could continue packing it with conservative policy — more spending cuts, pressure for a balanced budget amendment, no federal revenue increases. Despite the fact that not raising the debt limit would invite economic catastrophe. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans favor policy that’s actually far left of what the speaker proposed. Despite the fact that passing the measure exclusively with Republican votes would have given Boehner leverage when the House and Senate have to reconcile the debt-limit plans each chamber eventually passes. Despite all that, Boehner’s right flank would still have voted no, so the speaker pulled his bill. No matter what else happens in the House in the coming days, the right has damaged Boehner.
The reasons for all this may not be totally irrational for the hold-out lawmakers: The district-by-district politics of Congress can produce some bizarre voting behavior among its members. Just look at the hero treatment South Carolina’s intransigent lawmakers got in their home-state paper on Friday. At the same time, this is a frightening result. At least two dozen elected members of the House really were determined to vote for fiscal catastrophe, even after being offered generous terms for not doing so. These lawmakers seem willing only to exchange one form of budget disaster, not raising the debt limit, for another, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Why, other than fear about losing the speaker’s gavel, would Boehner continue to accommodate these people? Looking beyond the debt limit debate, the speaker faces a choice.
He can continue catering to the extreme in his party, demanding lopsided concessions from Democrats because his right flank won’t brook anything close to authentic, bipartisan compromise. If he tries to do that, it will be understandable if those across the negotiating table don’t take him as seriously. If he ultimately can’t control his caucus in big votes, he will need some Democratic yeas to pass bills.
Or the speaker can finally begin to legislate with an eye toward the more moderate elements of the House, assembling majorities of willing Republicans and what right-leaning Democrats there are left in the chamber in favor of more mainstream conservative policy. That might make it harder for him to maintain enough GOP support to remain speaker. But it also might result in real accomplishments he could list to voters in 2012. And, at the very least, he’s going to have to start relying on a more moderate majority when it comes time to pass a final debt-limit solution, anyway, unless he’s really willing to let the economy collapse.
Politics might make it difficult for Boehner to accept, but there is a correct answer here.