House Speaker John Boehner made it official on Thursday: Republicans are open to passing a temporary increase in the debt ceiling if the White House/Senate Democrats agree to negotiate over the terms of a budget resolution that would not only re-open the government but also address the broader debt and spending issues facing the country.
So, what now? Well, Boehner's announcement, which came after a meeting to discuss the proposal with the entire Republican conference, raises as many questions as it answers. Among them:
* What does President Obama do? In the immediate aftermath of the Boehner announcement on a temporary debt ceiling offer, his office bombarded reporters with quotes from President Obama, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and other Administration officials expressing their willingness to sign a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if that was what the House could pass. The White House statement that came after the Boehner press conference was far less encouraging on that front, however. "Congress needs to pass a clean debt limit increase and a funding bill to reopen the government," said a White House official.
That statement can -- and perhaps should -- be read in a few ways.
First, a statement from the White House praising Boehner's gambit would have almost certainly doomed its chances of passage through a Republican-controlled House. There are four dozen (or so) conservatives who oppose whatever Boehner says he is for but a whole lot more Republicans than that who would be suspicious about why the White House was so excited about a short-term extension of the debt ceiling.
Second, the White House has little interest in forfeiting the strength of their negotiating position before the President even sits down with the 18-member delegation of House GOPers set to visit the White House Thursday afternoon. President Obama has been consistent in his assertion that there will be no negotiation over either the debt ceiling or a funding measure to re-open the government. What Republicans are offering is that he can have one but not the other.
The White House needs to decide whether a clean debt ceiling vote -- assuming Boehner can get that through the House (more on that below) -- is enough to allow them to come to the negotiating table on broader budgetary issues where Republicans will undoubtedly demand some concessions on entitlement reform for a broader deal.
* What do House Republicans do if the White House rejects the deal? House Republicans were quite clear that the offer of a clean debt ceiling increase was entirely dependent on an agreement with President Obama to negotiate a broader budget deal. If Obama says "no" to that proposal, do House Republicans pull their offer of a clean debt ceiling vote or go forward with it regardless?
Pulling the offer would strengthen Boehner among the tea party wing of the party but would increase the likelihood that the the blame for a potential default would fall even more heavily on Republicans than polling suggests it already is.
Passing a clean debt ceiling increase without any concession from Obama would badly jeopardize Boehner's standing in the party since it would almost certainly not pass with a majority of the Republican majority voting for it.
* Can a clean debt limit bill win a majority of the majority? This is perhaps the most basic question in all of this. Boehner, as we have noted previously in this space, has already passed three pieces of legislation -- the fiscal cliff bill, Hurricane Sandy relief funding and the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act -- with a minority of Republicans supporting them this year. Does he want to do it again on something as high profile as the debt ceiling?
And, if Boehner doesn't want to pass a debt ceiling increase with a majority of Democratic votes, can he do so with a majority of Republicans? Boehner himself has cast doubt on that possibility, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that the votes weren't there in the House for a clean CR to pass. Did the vote-counting dynamic change that much over the past four days? Was Boehner simply playing possum over the weekend to strengthen his bargaining position? Boehner isn't talking so it's hard to answer those questions.
But, almost no matter what comes out of the meeting at the White House, Boehner's power over his conference will be tested (again) in the coming days.