Debt ceiling endgame: It's either the economy or John Boehner's job

The dynamic that has fueled the fiscal standoff hasn't changed

After a last-ditch effort by House Republicans to end the fiscal impasse imploded Tuesday under the weight of conservative outrage, the Senate announced it would go back to work on its own plan to avert a catastrophic debt default.

Yet while the Senate will once again take the lead in the negotiations, the fate of the nation's economy ultimately rests, as it has throughout the process, with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The Senate on Monday reached a tentative agreement to reopen the government and punt the debt ceiling to February, while tweaking ObamaCare and setting the table for imminent budget talks. House conservatives revolted over the terms of the deal, pressing Boehner to write a competing bill.

Yet a first draft of the House's plan on Tuesday, which was widely perceived as a fig leaf to mask an otherwise embarrassing defeat, didn't have enough GOP votes to advance. And after a hectic day of intra-caucus wrangling, a second plan went up in smoke as conservatives again refused to lend it their support, once again humiliating Boehner and underscoring his inability to corral his caucus.

The recriminations came fast and furious, from both left and right.

"There is no serious argument for Republican governance right now, even if you prefer conservative policies over liberal ones," says Josh Barro at Business Insider. "These people are just too dangerously incompetent to be trusted with power."

In response to the House breakdown, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced they would be restarting their own talks — which were put on hold as the House sought its own solution — adding that they were confident they could strike a deal.

Provided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) doesn't single-handedly throw the U.S. off an economic cliff, the bipartisan Senate proposal would present Boehner with two options:

1. Ignore the unofficial Hastert Rule and bring the Senate proposal up for a vote, even without support from a "majority of the majority" of Republicans. There, with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans, it would likely pass and prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt obligations.

2. Stick with the Tea Party wing of the House and try to muster a third, more conservative counteroffer, which Senate Democrats would immediately shoot down. That could leave the U.S. government without a deal as the debt ceiling hits at midnight.

Neither path bodes well for Boehner's political future. The Tea Partiers in the House have already started referring to Senate Republicans who dare cooperate with Reid as the "surrender caucus."

If Boehner brings the Senate proposal up for a vote, he will probably be chased from his speakership as a Republican in Name Only (RINO), something that wouldn't come as a surprise considering Tea Party Republicans have challenged him on everything from the previous fiscal cliff debate to funding for Hurricane Sandy relief.

On the other hand, default could lead to slowed economic growth, a lower U.S. credit rating, and, in a worst-case scenario, permanent damage to the economy.

In the words of The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, "Rock, meet hard place."

But this is the same rock and the same hard place that Boehner faced when he decided to throw in his lot with conservatives clamoring for the end of ObamaCare. In other words, the last two weeks have been nothing more than a painful dragging out of a fiasco that has brought Congress back to square one.

As Byron York at The Washington Examiner writes:

Speaker John Boehner is in roughly the same position he was on September 30, only more so. Back then, he faced the dilemma of sticking with those House conservatives, insisting on tougher ObamaCare measures, and letting the government shut down, or passing a spending bill with a lot of Republican votes plus many Democrats. He chose the shutdown. Now, with the debt limit deadline approaching, Boehner has the same choice to make. [The Washington Examiner]

The only thing working in Boehner's favor is that no one in the Republican caucus wants his job. Indeed, there are some who say Boehner has perfected the art of allowing raucous conservatives to work out their angst before finally succumbing to reality. Here's Alex Altman and Zeke Miller at Time on what they call the Boehner doctrine:

Stripped of earmarking grease, reluctant to rule by fiat, and with a conference that fears only its right flank, Boehner has long since realized that he must be bloodied first before he can steer the country to safety. The process, ugly and messy and infuriating, ultimately works. [Time]

At the very least, whoever is speaker will hopefully do things differently the next time Congress has to raise the debt ceiling — possibly as soon as February, according to the latest reported Senate proposal. Bet you can't wait.


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