John Boehner’s real tea party test
House Speaker John Boehner is being widely credited as having emerged victorious from last week’s budget showdown — receiving kudos for extracting nearly $40 billion in budget cuts and uniting a fractious tea party behind the compromise bill.
But, the real test of Boehner’s abilities as a party leader will come next month when Congress begins debate on raising the federal debt ceiling.
How Boehner handles the tea party wing of House GOPers in that legislative fight will be a far more telling window into how much power the movement has within Congress — and how much power Boehner has over the movement — than the narrowly-avoided shutdown.
The simple fact is that there was something well short of unanimity among conservatives and tea party Republicans for the idea of shutting down the government.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was blunt about the fact that a shutdown wasn’t worth it. “Republicans have got to show that the people of America matter more to them than the politics of their own houses, and that’s what I’m hoping will happen,” Huckabee told Fox News Channel in the runup to the shutdown.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, too, advocated Republicans taking the budget deal. “It’s pretty hard to get spending cuts when you don’t control the White House and you don’t control the Senate,” Coburn told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt in an interview last Friday.
Even Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the most prominent tea-party aligned Members of Congress, told “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory that she didn’t believe “anyone wants to see the government shut down”. (Bachmann drew criticism from some tea party leaders for that stance.)
When it comes to raising the debt limit — a vote that would allow the government to borrow more money — there is far more unified opposition within the tea party movement and its allies in Congress with many demanding deep concessions from Democrats to even consider a “yes” vote.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that cast the debt ceiling vote in near-apocalyptic terms
“We cannot afford to continue waiting,” he wrote. “This may be our last chance to force Washington to tackle the central economic issue of our time.”
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the midst of the budget showdown last Friday night, described the debt vote as “Armageddon”.
And, for the dozens of tea-party aligned House Republicans who were elected in 2010 on a pledge to drastically reduce the federal debt, voting against the raising of the debt ceiling is the sine qua non of their congressional service.
Polling suggests congressional Republicans are not alone in their skepticism about raising the debt limit.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, just 16 percent of people said the government should raise the ceiling while 46 percent opposed the idea and 38 percent said they didn’t know enough about it to offer an opinion.
Probing deeper, just 32 percent agreed with the statement that the debt limit increase was necessary to avoid the country being “unable to pay the nation’s bills” while 62 percent said that agreed with the statement that such a vote would “make it harder to get the government’s financiaol house in order”.
Considering that the stakes are arguably higher for the debt limit vote — if we don’t raise it, the country could, ultimately, default on our debts — than for the budget compromise, and the political challenge for Boehner becomes apparent.
It seems a near-certainty that the Obama Administration will need to make some policy compromises in order to extract a deal on the debt limit.
But, judging from the concessions people like Rubio have laid out for a deal to be done — tax reform, regulatory reform, a balanced-budget amendment and entitlement reform -- it’s hard to imagine the White House being able to give enough to make that sort of compromise possible.
And, all of that means that the burden will presumably be on Boehner to cut a deal that can garner 218 votes in the House while also avoiding a potential filibuster in the Senate from the likes of Rubio or South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
Boehner, knowing the challenge before him, is already staking out rhetorical ground on the debt limit.
“President Obama also wants a debt limit increase, but says spending cuts and budget reforms shouldn’t be attached to it,” Boehner wrote in an op-ed in today’s USA Today. “Americans will not stand for that. We must follow their will.”
That, of course, is a statement without specifics. And Boehner has yet to get into detail about how — and if — he can square the circle on his party’s strong opposition to raising the debt ceiling.
The work of the next few weeks for Boehner and his leadership team will be to find whether there is some package of compromises that a majority of his members say would be enough to make a “yes” vote on the debt limit palatable.
If that agreement can be reached, then Boehner has to go to the White House and Senate Democrats and see how much room there is to maneuver. It’s a very tricky balancing act — all being done, this time around, without a net.
The budget compromise proved Boehner’s negotiating abilities. The debt limit fight will test them in extremis.