Today, House Speaker John Boehner scrounged around to find the few votes he needed to pass a deficit reduction and debt limit increase plan, a difficult proposition, as his party's conservative wing has grown bold in its revolt against his leadership. He was forced to add a balanced budget amendment and other sweeteners to appease the tea party caucus. But the task didn't really need to be so difficult. In fact, there were 193 votes ripe for the taking. They're called "Democrats."
Mr. Boehner has resisted crafting a plan that will attract any of them out of the realization that it would irreparably fracture his caucus and threaten his leadership. But after his initial failure to round up the 217 Republican votes needed to pass his plan, the speaker surely must realize that it's already too late to avoid that. President Obama, speaking at the White House yesterday morning, pointed out the obvious lesson that Mr. Boehner should have taken away from Thursday's events: "Any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan."
Given the fact that 53 Democratic Senators and two independents have already sent him a letter saying they would not pass his two-step debt limit increase plan, and that President Obama have already promised to veto it, Mr. Boehner knew before today's efforts that jamming his bill through the House with no Democratic support is unlikely to work. Despite his boasts that the Senate will cave in and take his bill as the August 2 deadline nears, the chances are and always were that the final deal would not be on his terms.
Passing a bill designed solely to please his caucus isn't completely crazy or a total waste of time, as the White House insisted, but it is more akin to a Hail Mary pass. Hail Marys do sometimes work in football, and in politics, unlikely bills can sometimes gain surprising life as a legislative deadline approaches. But the speaker's work this week has been an act of desperation, not strength, which was proved Thursday as the conservative sharks (Rep. Michele Bachman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the tea party group Freedom Works) started openly urging Republican congressmen to vote against the Boehner plan. Whether his bill passes the House when it comes up for a vote this evening is irrelevant. The damage to his leadership is already done.
Attention shifts now to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has been in periodic talks with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about the contours of a plan that could get enough support to pass and avoid a filibuster. It would not include a two-step increase to the debt limit — a bad idea that would have failed to lift any of the uncertainty about the nation's fiscal security and its ability to pay its bills. And it would not include a balanced budget amendment, a restriction that would badly hobble the nation's ability to handle crises.
The legislation Mr. Reid is working on would amount to a substantial down payment on deficit reduction — $2.2 trillion over 10 years, depending on how you count, substantially more than Mr. Boehner put on the table — and would provide the nation with enough debt capacity to get through the next election. That's not just petty politics but a rational consideration given the gridlock in Washington born of the combination of a Democratic president, Democratic Senate and heavily tea party influenced House. The next election gives the American people the chance to send to Washington a clearer message about the direction Congress and the president should take.
The Reid plan is far from perfect. It doesn't do enough over the long term to control the deficit — the bond rating agency Standard & Poor's has indicated that it's looking for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade to prevent a credit downgrade — and it relies solely on spending cuts without asking corporations or the wealthy to contribute to the solution. It's theoretically possible that some kind of grand bargain could still emerge — perhaps along the lines of the "Gang of Six" plan in the Senate that pairs spending cuts with revenue increases. But at this point, some version of the Reid plan remains the most likely vehicle to avoid a default on the nation's debt, which would have catastrophic effects on an economy that, according to new figures released Friday, is barely growing as it is.
The major hurdle remains Speaker Boehner's willingness to accept a plan that gets a majority of votes in the House without getting a majority in the House Republican Caucus. The damage to party unity that would result could bring a quick end to his time as speaker. But after Thursday's events, it should be clear to him that he cannot have a plan that both solidifies his leadership and saves the country from default. He is left to choose, and the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.