Did John Boehner just end the debt-ceiling fight?

October 3, 2013

Reports are emerging that Speaker Boehner is telling some Republicans that he's willing to pass a debt-ceiling increase using Democratic votes.

If true, that means Boehner won't permit a default, and if that means suspending the Hastert rule, then so be it. So crisis over, right?


(AFP/Getty)

Maybe! I asked Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, about the report. “Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we're going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits," he e-mailed. "That’s why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again."

That's what they call a non-denial denial. And it speaks to a deep problem Boehner's team has never quite figured out how to resolve. On the one hand, Boehner has always said he won't allow the United States to default. On the other hand, he's also always said that he won't pass a clean debt-ceiling bill.

Imagine a bank robber who swears no hostages will be harmed under any circumstances but also says no one gets out alive if his demands aren't met. That's more or less Boehner's position.

One way Boehner's position gets squared is the addition of President Obama. In a scenario where things go badly Boehner will continue saying that he will not let the country default. He'll just also say that the president is letting the country default by refusing Boehner's entirely reasonable request to sit down and negotiate.

This is worth thinking about on a human level as well as a political one. It's easy for people, even politicians, to get very personally invested in negotiations with people they don't particularly like. At this point, Barack Obama and John Boehner do not particularly like each other. It may be the case that Boehner doesn't want to default and doesn't even want the government shut down. But he -- and others in the Republican Party -- are also getting angrier at what they see as the White House's condescending refusal to even sit down and talk. It wouldn't be that hard for Boehner to convince himself that he's made a more than reasonable effort to reach a deal and that it's Obama who's standing in the way.

An interesting wrinkle of this debt-limit debate is that the White House's position does not include any of Boehner's vagueness. The administration does not say, at this point, that the United States will not default on its debt. The president is telling the markets to worry. The White House is saying they will not negotiate and that it is up to the Republicans whether we default. They don't want a default, they say, but they are not going to negotiate policy concessions with Republicans in order to prevent one.

So if Obama doesn't prove himself a liar by sitting down and negotiating before Republicans increase the debt limit then does Boehner fold completely? Or does he allow a default? No one really knows. The Plum Line's Greg Sargent calls this Boehner's "strategic ambiguity," and I don't think it's cleared up yet.

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