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Can Boehner Lead House Republicans?

Last night’s failure of House Republicans to pass a bill that would have been dead on arrival in the Senate, anyway, raises questions about whether a deal is possible and whether John Boehner can lead his own coalition.

Time’s Jay Newton-Small (“The weak speaker: How a failed debt vote disarmed the nation’s top Republican“):

House Speaker John Boehner failed to muster enough GOP votes to pass his plan to raise the debt limit on Thursday night, throwing into question the fate of Boehner’s proposal as well as that of his speakership. Republican leaders must now rewrite the legislation in order to attract more conservatives as they try to pass a revised version on Friday. But considerable damage has been done. Boehner’s negotiating stance in the ongoing effort to trim deficits and raise the debt ceiling by next Tuesday’s deadline is hobbled; any credibility he had in claiming that his restive members could get behind a consensus debt deal has vanished. The Speaker has gone lame.

The House was expected to vote Thursday evening on Boehner’s legislation, which would raise the debt ceiling through the end of 2011 in exchange for $917 billion in spending cuts and the creation of a special committee to find more savings that would accompany a second debt-ceiling vote in January. It looked as if Boehner would have the votes early Thursday, but by 5 p.m., Republican leaders announced that the vote would be postponed.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had already declared the House Republican plan dead on arrival in the Senate. But House leaders worked to push the measure through because, as they told their members, it would give them greater leverage in negotiations with the Senate and, perhaps more importantly, their own credibility as dealmakers was on the line. Boehner hoped to force the Senate – and President Obama – to take his version of the debt bill. The Speaker was crafting legislation with Reid until last weekend, but the two split over whether to raise the debt ceiling through 2012 in one vote, as Democrats wanted, or to try for a second debt limit hike in six months. Reid and Obama argued that holding another tortured debt ceiling debate in January, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, would be politically unwise and economically dangerous.

But after he split with Reid, Boehner was left with a bill that was too far to the left for the ideological purists in his conference. Conservatives balked at $18 billion in Pell Grants for low-income students that Boehner had included to lure Democratic votes. They were also disappointed that the bill only called for $917 billion in cuts. Their preferred legislation – a conservative dream bill known as Cut, Cap and Balance that passed the House earlier in July on a near party-line vote – would’ve halved the projected $7.1 trillion federal 10-year deficit by next year. That bill died in the Senate.

In a highly embarrassing development, Boehner must now move his bill to the right in order to secure enough votes from his own party. The Speaker’s failure exposes an uncomfortable reality for the GOP: A final debt ceiling compromise will likely require a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass the House, and the outspoken conservative wing of the party will not be on board. That could embolden Democrats to seek a more favorable deal, and it leaves Senate Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a weaker hand to negotiate.

So,  Boehner had a bill that was  too far right to make it through the Democratic-majority Senate, tried to  convince his  coalition to vote  for it anyway to give him negotiating leverage, and they balked because it was too far left. This would seem problematic.

The solution would seem to be to craft a bill that gets most of the Democratic caucus to go along and enough Republicans to pass. That would both avert a self-inflected  default on the nation’s debt and the devastation  to the  economy it would create while still giving fiscal conservatives significant spending  cuts. It  would  also lead to a revolt in the Republican caucus and  cost Boehner his Speakership.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    “The solution would seem to be to craft a bill that gets most of the Democratic caucus to go along and enough Republicans to pass.”

    I think that’s the best solution, too. Unfortunately, it is career suicide for the Republicans who vote for it, not just Boehner. Maybe Wall Street can find them a safe landing in exchange for saving the markets…

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  2. EddieInCA says:

    From Tim F. at Balloon Juice:

    Word has it that Boehner retired to redraft the bill and win some teatard votes. The worst bill in American history amended by a sleep-deprived guy under tremendous stress, to please the stupidest group of legislators in American history. What could possibly go wrong?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  3. mattb says:

    The solution would seem to be to craft a bill that gets most of the Democratic caucus to go along and enough Republicans to pass.

    @JJ, 100% right and 100% the problem. The nature of the House election cycle and the ability of the Tea Party/Conservatives to stage efficient primary challenges means that any Republican who went along with this (real compromise) would be putting their seat at high risk.

    They’ve sowed the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.

    And to some degree we all have and we all are in this situation.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    I’m reminded that one party keeps bringing up patriotism, with slogans like “country first”, and a fondness for flag pins.

    And yet, when it comes time to do the right thing — compromise and accept 90% of what they want rather than 100% — they are having problems.

    It comes back to the old rule of thumb, never trust anyone who says “Trust me”. A corollary seems to be that a self described patriot will always put their own interests above the country’s.

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  5. Who wants to be the 50 or so Republicans to vote with ~170 or so Democrats to get a non-conservative wet-dream bill passed? And of those 50 Republicans what percentage of them will make it to the November 2012 general election ballot? I would bet 75% of them would either retire, have already announced their retirement, or would lose a primary (remember “conservatives” and “very conservative” individuals make up well over half the Republican Primary electorate in almost every district in the nation, including, esp. the D+3 to D+8 districts that some of the most vulnerable Republican Congress critters represent.

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  6. An Interested Party says:

    I remember the kind words that conservatives and Republicans had for Nancy Pelosi when she was the Speaker of the House…I don’t recall her being the weak, pathetic leader that Boehner has been…

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  7. Infidel4ever says:

    ‘Those who stand for nothing fall for anything’ Peter Marshall

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  8. Infidel4ever says:

    I’m not sticking up for Boehner, however, San Fran Grand Nan is a disgrace and idiot! Boehner is just to timid & weak to lead!

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