The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How John Boehner decided to give up on the debt limit fight

This week’s debt-limit drama ended as it began: with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), standing alone before his colleagues, seeking consensus but receiving only silence and stares in return.

Video: Why debt ceiling deniers say there's no limit

Some conservative members of Congress claimed raising the debt ceiling last fall was a non-issue, but would still not compromise. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The scene happened Tuesday morning at the Capitol Hill Club, where House Republicans had gathered for a private breakfast.

After listening to a handful of colleagues flatly discuss fundraising strategy for 30 minutes, Boehner stood up, walked past dozens of sleepy, coffee-sipping Republicans and tersely woke up the room with an update.

“Listen – we’re going to move forward,” Boehner said. Instead of bringing up the leadership’s plan, which would link a restoration of recently cut military benefits to a debt-ceiling extension, he would push a “clean” bill, averting default more than two weeks before the Treasury Department’s debt-limit deadline.

“We’re going to get this done,” Boehner continued, according to several people present for his remarks. No strings attached, he added. He said he was going stop reaching for votes on the plan, an effort that had stalled on Monday. And he wasn’t going to even think of floating another proposal. He was going to do what he thought was best for the GOP, in spite of the widespread angst.

For the past week, Boehner said, he had gone through all of the possible options with the conference, had mulled a variety of scenarios, all with the hope of getting 200-plus Republicans united. But nothing ever gained traction, even the military pension fix, which he thought could win Democratic votes.

Ahead of the midterm elections, Boehner argued that now is not the time to get drawn into weeks of dramatic headlines and fiscal battles with President Obama. “We’re not going to make ourselves the story,” he said. He spoke about the need for the party to not get mired in damaging endeavors.

Boehner’s delivery was crisp; his decision was final.

The room of Republicans sat up, stunned that Boehner was abruptly shifting away from the leadership’s plan, which had been championed 12 hours earlier at a Monday night meeting in the Capitol basement. But there were no outcries or boos. A few members whispered to each other that Boehner was right, that due to conservative opposition to any hike, he was cornered.

But they didn’t speak up or clap. Boehner just stood there for a moment after he finished, eyed the room, and walked toward his seat. On his way there, Boehner shook his head, then turned to the nearly mute crowd and wondered aloud why he wasn’t getting applause. “I’m getting this monkey off your back and you’re not going to even clap?” Boehner asked, scowling playfully at some tea-party favorites.

In a second, attendees snapped back and dozens of them applauded, but there were no cheers. “There was, how do I say it, a polite golf clap,” one House GOP veteran said. “But that, thank God, was the end.”

Boehner’s allies said there was never a grand plan to end the talks on Tuesday morning with a brief speech; that was how events evolved, following the mixed reception for Boehner’s latest gambit on Monday, where a long line of Republicans complained when the floor was opened for comment.

One member on Monday night, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), went so far as to knock Boehner as a tool of the insurance companies, due to his decision to not bring up a debt-limit plan that would address the federal health-care law’s risk corridors. Harris was booed for the swipe and backed off. Boehner, in response, said Harris's preferred option was given ample consideration, then pulled after conservatives balked.

“I think he wants to get the issue taken care of,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “John Boehner is the adult in the room.” (Cole voted no on the debt limit increase.)

As House Republicans filed out into the cold winter air following Tuesday’s breakfast, Boehner walked next door for a press conference. “Happy, happy, happy,” he muttered as he entered, shrouded by Capitol Police.

“You all know that our members are not crazy about voting to increase the debt ceiling,” Boehner told reporters, his voice weary. “When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing. We’ve seen that before, we see it again.”

Ten minutes later, as he departed, Boehner started to sing a ditty. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a,” he said. “Plenty of sunshine coming my way.”

Members of the press and a handful of aides watching the speaker leave were bemused by his dark, singsong humor. Boehner winked and hustled out, having endured an awkward morning, but with a crisis avoided.