Boehner's gambit [Editorial]

With Tuesday's decision to bring to a vote an increase in the nation's debt limit without any conditions, House Speaker John Boehner reasserted himself as the pivotal figure in a badly divided Washington. He demonstrated again that he is able and willing to go against the wishes of the extremists in his caucus when he determines it to be in the nation's and/or Republican Party's long-term interests, and once again, he appears unlikely to pay much of a price. That doesn't mean we should expect a golden era of bipartisan deal making, but it does suggest the prospect of action on the nation's most pressing issues during the remainder of President Barack Obama's term is not entirely bleak.

Mr. Boehner ushered in the era of using the debt ceiling as leverage to gain other policy concessions when, at the urging of the newly emboldened and tea party-influenced Republican majority, he demanded in the summer of 2011 that any increase in the limit be accompanied by cuts in spending. Since then, he and his party have sought to tie debt ceiling increases to a laundry list of priorities, some not even loosely related to fiscal issues.

But the political debacle of the government shutdown in October seems to have sapped Republicans' energy from that tactic. The public made clear that it did not approve. And even some of the more strident members of the House tea party caucus didn't push for a confrontation this time, evidently out of a desire not to hand Democrats anything they could use to their advantage before the fall elections.

Mr. Boehner made some attempts at finding a face-saving concession from the Democrats that Republicans could use to declare victory, but finding none, he abruptly announced to his caucus Tuesday morning that he would bring a clean debt limit vote to the floor. According to reports about the meeting, his announcement was greeted largely with silence.

That's not to say that Republicans were enthusiastic about Mr. Boehner's plan. The vast majority in the House voted against the bill, and various tea party groups are calling for the speaker to be replaced. But there appears to be no real momentum behind such an effort.

That doesn't mean Mr. Boehner has carte blanche to do whatever he likes as speaker. His recent backtracking on a plan to move forward with immigration reform legislation shows that he remains constrained. But after three years in which it appeared that the only concern of the House majority was to avoid a primary challenge from an even more right-wing candidate in a heavily gerrymandered district, this averted showdown suggested that Republicans in Congress are willing to go along with, if not actively endorse, a strategy that puts political pragmatism above the quest for ideological purity.

Mounting a coup against Speaker Boehner over his debt ceiling apostasy would probably be good politics in many Republican House members' districts. But it would be terrible for the party as a whole, since it would highlight the disarray in the GOP and detract from Republicans' efforts to make this election about the troubled launch of the Affordable Care Act.

Midterm politics weigh heavily against the prospects of immigration reform or a sensible package of budget and tax reform — not to speak of, say, legislation to deal with climate change. Any of those would hand President Obama a victory and at least tangentially boost the fortunes of Democrats running for Congress. But in the likelihood that Republicans retain the majority in the House this fall and perhaps even take control of the Senate, the dynamics heading into 2016 could be very different.

The most likely breakthrough is on immigration reform. Given the GOP's abysmal track record with Hispanic voters in recent presidential elections, political pragmatism would counsel that Republicans not block such legislation if they have any desire to retake the White House. The way Mr. Boehner handled this debt limit increase could serve as a template for enacting comprehensive immigration reform in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. It would be a matter of politics serving the public interest, which is as it should be.

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