House Speaker John Boehner summed up his speakership during a press conference Tuesday morning: “We don’t have 218 votes. When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
Boehner was talking specifically about his failed attempts to cobble together a deal that would have allowed the Republican House majority to support an increase in the debt ceiling. Over the past 10 days, he had tried to lure tea party conservatives to vote "yes" by putting approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, elimination of risk corridors in the Affordable Care Act and, finally, restoring the cost of living adjustment for members of the military on the table. Nothing worked. The simple fact is that there was no proposal that Boehner and his leadership team could think up that could overcome the fact that 30-40 Republicans wouldn't vote for any debt ceiling increase.
And so, Boehner gave up. "Let his party give him the debt ceiling he wants," Boehner said of President Obama. (Boehner's work is far from finished, of course. He will still need to deliver at least 17 Republican votes -- if all 199 Democrats vote for their clean increase. And that's far from a sure thing.)
We've seen this movie before. From the fiscal cliff to the farm bill to the government shutdown -- and at several points in between -- the narrative arc just keeps repeating itself: A controversial deadline looms, Boehner and the GOP leadership try like hell to avert it through a series of offers to the tea party wing of the conference, those offers are rejected, and Boehner is left throwing up his hands and cutting a deal with Democrats.
This, as has become clear over the past year or so, is Boehner's fate as Speaker: To lead a group of Republicans who do not want to be led. And, ironically, even in the attempt to lead his conference (that is his job after all), Boehner has become further villainized by outside conservative groups. In an email calling for Boehner's ouster as Speaker, the Senate Conservatives Fund wrote:
Republicans are giving up because they know that winning is impossible when their leaders are determined to lose. These leaders have telegraphed weakness to the Democrats and sabotaged conservative efforts so many times that Republicans now have no leverage. There's only one solution. John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House.
That seems very unlikely -- at least in the near term. But, what the debt ceiling capitulation reveals is that the budget deal approved at the end of 2013 was an exception, not the rule. In the runup to that successful bipartisan vote -- the result of a deal cut by Washington State Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan -- Boehner blasted outside conservative groups in what was cast as a potentially a new beginning for his Speakership. Boehner followed the budget deal up with a set of immigration proposals that looked like they might actually be passed by both chambers and become law. But, last week Boehner walked back the possibility of immigration reform and, today, came face to face (again) with the math problem he faces within his conference.
What do the debt ceiling negotiations tell us about the state of the Republican party and, specifically, Boehner's role at the top? In truth, nothing all that new. Tea party conservatives feel no loyalty to Boehner and nothing he can say or do convinces them to get behind a piece of legislation. There are enough in that bloc (somewhere between 30-50 depending on the legislation) to ensure that passing a vote with GOP votes alone is impossible. Boehner is then left with two bad options: 1. Allow things like the debt ceiling to be breached or 2. Turn to Democrats to provide the necessary votes to pass controversial measures. He has typically opted for option 2 but, in so doing, has made his chances of winning reelection as Speaker (if Republicans hold the House in November) that much more perilous.
The only thing that may have changed? Boehner's attitude to it all. He seems to have moved into the "beyond caring" zone. He walked out of Tuesday's press conference singing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" as he left the press conference.