Tuesday, July 26, 2011

John Boehner

John Boehner
With a week to go until a potentially calamitous federal default, talks that began three months ago with an overt gesture toward bipartisanship appear to have ended in a high-stakes game of chicken.

Both President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehnerset their hot rods on a collision course Monday evening, with neither side showing much interest in compromise even as the clock continues to tick.

Both men appeared to center the thrust of his appeals to the audience at home around the same set of political players, the insurgent Republicans in the House. To Obama, they represent irrationality and a failure to seek compromise for the good of the nation. To Boehner, they are a growing power base that must be courted if his plan has any hope to pass.

In that sense, Obama seemed to be addressing a broader share of the public, while Boehner was directly speaking to his right flank. Boehner reframed his talks with Obama, doubling-down on the plan that passed the House last week, labeled “Cut, Cap and Balance.” That plan, which would impose a rigid cap on federal spending and clear the way for passage of a balanced-budget amendment, was widely viewed last week as a symbolic bone that Boehner was throwing to his conservative base to pave the way for a GOP plan that hews more closely to the center.

The speaker may still engaged in that same gambit, but Monday, he embraced the banner of “cut, cap” with full-throat — while implying that his own plan, which would raise the federal debt ceiling in two stages and provide for significant spending cuts, comes as close to the principles of that plan as the "tea party" freshmen and other like-minded conservatives are going to get right now.

Reports have Boehner, along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), trying Tuesday to persuade their unruly caucus of that legislative reality. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is trying to rally Senate Democrats, along with a swath of Republicans, around his competing plan, one that Obama also endorses. The major difference between the two plans largely comes down to how they calculate the trillions in budget savings over the next 10 years.

Both chambers now are rushing to pass their own plans to put pressure on the other side to pass their version of the package as the clock winds down to zero. (National Football League owners did something similar last week in a different context when they voted to approve a settlement with players, forcing the players to be in the sole position of either letting the season open on time or blocking a deal.)

Boehner’s House will likely beat the Senate to the punch if the speaker can corral the votes he needs in the next day or so. Reid, because of Senate procedures, will probably have to overcome a GOP filibuster to get his plan moving — and he may have to alter his plan to make it more closely mirror Boehner's to succeed.

Right now, at least, it doesn’t look any more likely that the Reid plan could pass the House than the Boehner plan could pass the Senate. But the dynamics of the deadline could change that. So, which side might have the advantage?

If Reid’s plan does clear the Senate it might be able to attract enough Democratic votes in the House to overcome GOP defections. (Assuming House leaders would allow a vote on Reid’s plan at all.) But such an outcome could make Boehner appear weak, even endanger his speakership.

At the same time, if Boehner can make it clear that his plan is the only one that can pass the House, it’s possible that will give him enough leverage in the Senate to convince moderate Democrats (especially the several facing tough 2012 reelection fights) to vote for it.

To that end, Boehner has one key ICBM in his arsenal, the very tea party-infused Republicans maligned by Obama and castigated by commentators of all partisan stripes. Of all the respective factions in this long-running fight, it’s the only group that has said time and again that it was willing to risk a federal default. That’s an outcome that Obama and the Democrats cannot afford to let happen, which could shift the balance of power to the speaker.

That rightward gravitational pull has already yanked Obama and Reid off their position to embrace a plan that offers no revenues, only spending cuts. And it could be the force that ultimately helps Boehner win the day.