Feature

The lessons of John Boehner's latest failure

House Republicans cave once again on the debt ceiling, and suddenly Democrats have all the leverage

A last-ditch plan by House Republicans to extract concessions in exchange for hiking the nation's borrowing limit fell apart Tuesday morning, with conservative holdouts leaving the party short of the necessary votes.

That the GOP caved isn't as surprising as the speed with which it did, just a few minutes into a morning conference meeting. All along, it was clear Republicans had no leverage with their debt-ceiling threats; they'd caved before, and public opinion was firmly against more debt limit extortion.

Still, the GOP's latest debt ceiling defeat is yet another sign of how difficult it has become for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to move anything through his divided caucus. And Boehner's inability to control his party is a real liability, as it's given Democrats even less reason to concede ground in future negotiations — not only on the debt ceiling, but on other major issues as well.

Even after Republicans self immolated during last year's debt ceiling negotiations by offering a fantastical hostage list, the party again wanted to extract some kind of concessions this time. But though the ask list was smaller, the party again couldn't agree on a single plan, and a handful of proposals quickly collapsed. In a weird Bizarro World twist, the last idea — to restore pension benefits to some veterans — would have had Republicans either voting to raise spending, or voting against the military.

In the end, the potential damage to the GOP was so great that party leaders knew they had two options on the debt ceiling: Stand firm and destroy the party's approval rating (again), or ask Democrats for help. Boehner gave the finger to the Tea Party and picked Door Number 2.

So now, Democrats and President Obama, who insisted throughout the ordeal that they would only support a clean debt ceiling vote, have watched the GOP cave once again. When Republicans return with more debt ceiling demands in the future, Democrats will surely be emboldened to shrug them off and say "nope" again, confident the demands are merely more empty threats.

But will Boehner keep bucking the right wing? Immigration offers a salient test case, with Boehner seemingly interested in passing some reforms, and conservative critics blasting any action as "amnesty."

The fallout for Republicans from spiking immigration this year wouldn't be as visceral as the damage from, say, the government shutdown. But it would give Democrats a huge talking point — "Republicans are anti-immigration" — and further impinge on the party's ability to court minority voters.

In short, Boehner is, as he has been for some time, caught between his need to appease the right and his need to do his job. The latest debt ceiling brouhaha has only exposed how tricky that balancing act is, and shown Democrats that, with a little pressure, they can force him to dump the right and seek out their help.

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