But though the timing was a surprise, the decision also may have been utterly predictable. Facing a potential revolt in his caucus, one that was growing as more details about the components of the possible agreement were leaking out, Boehner apparently decided to cut his losses now rather than risk a major insurrection and possible rejection by his party.
What comes next, after what could be some rancorous talks, will be a far more limited agreement, one that will get the government through the deadline when its borrowing authority expires, but one that still leaves for the future what to do about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and revenues in ways that put the nation’s long-term fiscal house in order.
For weeks now, the president and the speaker were the two main advocates for a big deal as part of an agreement to hike the debt ceiling. Talks led by Vice President Biden had identified significant budget cuts but not major changes in entitlements or significant new revenues. Many in Congress were satisfied that such a package was more than enough to get through the current debt ceiling deadline.
But if others recommended a more limited agreement, the speaker and the president kept talking about something bigger. The president kept prodding both sides not to let this moment slip away. The speaker, more quietly, hung in, with his and Obama’s staffs exchanging ideas that would have brought political howls from both their parties.
Sunday’s meeting was to be the moment when it either began to come together or fell apart. It would have been a meeting that had less to do with what it would take to raise the debt ceiling and more a test of whether political leaders from both parties can come together for something that has eluded Washington politicians for many years.
What was being discussed would entail the kind of political pain that has always blocked such agreements in the past. But it also might just have put the country on a sustainable fiscal path, which has been the stated goal of both sides for some time.
A big deal would have reduced the deficit by $4 trillion or more over 10 years or so, with spending cuts in excess of $2 trillion and new revenues estimated at more than $1.3 trillion, although precise numbers were hard to come by, given the fluidity of the talks.
The politics were treacherous. For Democrats, it would have meant swallowing significant cuts in entitlements programs. The changes likely would have affected all the major entitlements programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and not just by tinkering. An example of the kinds of ideas that had been discussed was a rise over the next decade in the Medicare eligibility age.