Multiple reports today inform us that John Boehner is privately telling colleagues that in the end, he won’t allow default and will even let a debt ceiling hike pass with mostly Dem votes if it comes down to it. Plenty of folks are rightly skeptical about this development. But it’s not entirely without significance.

The Post’s account points out that this may be a trial balloon designed to gauge how this will play with conservatives. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Boehner has been reiterating that Boehner does not intend to allow default, even as that spokesman is simultaneously reiterating that he will expect concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit, anyway. Why? Because a “clean” debt limit cannot pass the House.

This is a variation on the glaring absurdity that’s been at the heart of Boehner’s position for some time, i.e, the simultaneous insistence that he knows the debt limit hike must happen — and that the contrary is not an option — even as he asks us to grant the presumption that the prospect of default gives him leverage. The twist added here is that this leverage is derived from the fact that only way to avert default is for Dems to give up enough in concessions so a high enough number of Republicans will vote to raise the debt limit to get it through. The game is that Boehner knows it must be raised — wink, wink — but all those crazies in his caucus will need some goodies to get them to go along.

Note these details from the Post’s write up:

In a series of small-group meetings in his office suite, Boehner has told fellow Republicans that he will not permit a vote on a “clean” short-term spending bill that does not end or delay parts of the new federal health-care law. But the aides indicated that Boehner is willing to risk infuriating some of the most conservative House GOP lawmakers by relying on a majority of Democratic votes — and less than a majority of Republicans — to pass a debt-ceiling increase.

What still needs to be nailed down is whether Boehner is prepared to allow a vote on a “clean” debt ceiling increase. Quotes from his spokespeople suggest not, but on the other hand, if a debt ceiling increase is going to pass with mostly Dems, it would have to be clean. More clarification here would be useful.

More broadly, what seems to be going on here is that this is Boehner’s “big give,” as one Dem aide put it to me sarcastically. Boehner is signaling flexibility in the sense that he just may be willing to give Dems the “clean” debt ceiling increase they want, but only in a larger context where Dems will be expected to make concessions in exchange for keeping the government open. In other words, whether or not Boehner ends up being open to a “clean” debt ceiling vote, the larger picture will remain that Democrats will still have to hand over a series of concessions in exchange for GOP cooperation in returning us to something resembling governing normalcy.

So in one sense, this isn’t much of a concession. On the other hand, the mere fact that Boehner sees a need to telegraph nominal flexibility to begin with could be a key tell. With Obama warning that Wall Street should take the possibility of default seriously, Boehner seems to see a need to underscore, again, that he will not allow default under any circumstances, and that keeping alive any doubts about this is politically untenable. Dems will look at this and probably only be even more encouraged to hold to a hard line on both the government shutdown and the debt limit. Boehner’s trial balloon is also useful in the sense that it makes the glaring absurdity that’s always been at the heart of his position even more glaringly absurd.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.