Boehner's Inability To Strategically Maneuver

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 26, 2011

Boehner's Inability To Strategically Maneuver

One of the oddities of the Obama-Boehner negotiation/showdown is that Obama has vastly more strategic latitude than Boehner. Obama can cut almost any deal he wants. He can probably persuade Democrats in Congress to go along with an outrageously bad deal. He could sign a deal that passes with mostly Republican votes.

Boehner can't do those things. He got his job as Speaker by default. He is the picture of the Washington insider and the apotheosis of the kind of Republican conservative activists loath and suspect of selling them out. His head has been on the chopping block from day one, and it won't take much to bring the ax down. Note this not-too-subtle threat from Steve King:

Aside from actually nailing down a plan that can pass the House, there’s also the problem of what kind of support a final deal gets — and whether it ends up receiving the backing of more members of the president’s party than of Boehner’s.

That could be “a real political conundrum,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a five-term lawmaker and one of the House’s most vocal conservative members.

“If he ends up with a deal with more Democratic votes than Republican votes, I think the speaker has a real problem,” King said.

The "problem" meaning not that the deal wouldn't pass, but that Boehner would lose his job.

This is the key fact to keep in mind when assessing Boehner's actions. He obviously wants to make a Grand Bargain. But he can't and he knows it. This constraint on his maneuvering ability gives him a huge advantage in the game of chicken against Obama. In other ways, though, it dramatically inhibits him. For instance, it's not even clear that his current plan, which is unacceptable to Democrats can pass the House:

One of the most influential conservatives in Congress says he's confident his own Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will lack the votes to pass his plan to raise the debt limit in the House of Representatives. ...

"I am confident as of this morning that there are not 218 Republicans in support of the plan," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters at a Tuesday morning press briefing.

It's possible that Jordan is bluffing, or that things could change. But I think it's at least an open question whether Boehner's bill can pass the House. I'd bet on yes, but I wouldn't bet too much.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a plan in place either way. Greg Sargent has some great reporting here:

Here’s the game plan, as seen by Senate Dem aides: The next move is to sit tight and wait for the House to vote on Boehner's proposal. The idea is that with mounting conservative opposition, it could very well be defeated. If the Boehner plan goes down in the House, that would represent a serious blow to Boehner’s leadership, weakening his hand in negotiations. ...

At that point, the Senate would then pass Harry Reid’s proposal, and then kick it over to the House, which would increase pressure on Boehner to try to get it passed, since he was unable to pass his own plan.

The second alternative possibility being gamed out by Senate Dems would take place if the Boehner plan does manage to sneak through the House. Aides say Dems would then vote it down in the Senate. ...

Senate Dems would vote to “amend” Boehner’s bill by replacing it completely with Reid’s proposal — which the Senate could then pass more quickly than they otherwise could.

After that, Reid’s proposal — having passed the Senate — would then get kicked back to the House. Having proved that Boehner’s plan can’t pass the Senate, Democrats would in effect be giving House Republicans a choice: Either pass the Reid proposal, or take the blame for default and the economic calamity that ensues.

What's Boehner's plan? I don't really know if he has a plan. I think he has a short-term survival strategy. Of course, from the perspective of the world economy, that makes him very, very dangerous. 

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posted in: jonathan chait, washington, boehner, congress, senate, harry reid, steve king, iowa

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