What Does John Boehner Really Want?

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 6, 2011

What Does John Boehner Really Want?

Katrina vanden Heuvel argues that President Obama should immediately commit, in public, to invoking the 14th Amendment prohibition against defaulting on the debt in the case of any failure to lift the debt ceiling. Matthew Yglesias seconds her, on the grounds that Obama needs leverage to force Republicans to accept a deal:

Ultimately, to get a bargain there has to be some reason to prefer a bargain to not having a bargain. The White House would clearly prefer a deal on the long-term deficit to trying to invoke a novel constitutional doctrine. But it seems like House Republicans might also plausibly prefer a deal to watching the president invoke said doctrine. In that case, you get a deal. But absent some kind of viable White House “Plan B,” then it’s difficult for the House GOP to agree to anything.

Hmm, I'm not so sure about that. For the hard core default denialists among the House GOP caucus, there's no reason at all to want a deal. The baseline is that we don't lift the debt ceiling and therefore immediately have a balanced budget entirely through spending cuts. Any deal simply increases the size of government from that baseline.

Obviously, the House leadership does not agree with that analysis. The leadership understands that failing to lift the debt ceiling would have horrific consequences. But they also don't want to cross the base, and they don't want to have to round up a lot of their members and force them to cast a vote that could end their career via right-wing primary challenge.

If you're John Boehner, it's going to be very hard to navigate this issue without infuriating either your voting base or your financial base. You want this issue to go away. In that sense, the 14th Amendment solution might be your best outcome. Indeed, Boehner's ideal scenario may be if Obama came out for the 14th Amendment solution and it passes legal muster, allowing him to avoid any ideological compromise while assuring business leaders that Obama will prevent any of the consequences of his position.

Granted, the Constitutional Option would deny Boehner the chance to wring concessions on spending from Obama. But are those concessions worth risking his own job and the jobs of many of his members? I doubt it. Besides, Boehner could always cut a budget deal with Obama outside the debt ceiling context.

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posted in: jonathan chait, obama, john boehner, matthew yglesias, republican party, white house

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