It was once the backbone of the House Republican majority — the hard-line stand that brought President Barack Obama to the negotiating table and yielded more than $2 trillion in deficit reduction.
On Tuesday, it abruptly vanished, the victim of Republican disunity and a president determined not to bargain again.
During the summer budget negotiations in 2011, House Speaker John Boehner had insisted that any increase in the nation’s borrowing limit be matched dollar for dollar with spending cuts. It became the “Boehner Rule,” a mantra of fiscal discipline. And while it didn’t always live up to its tit-for-tat formula, it helped drive budget talks and kept deficit reduction at the fore of the Republican agenda.
But there are limits to Republican power, and on Tuesday inevitability finally caught up to the speaker.
Boehner let Congress vote on a measure to extend the nation’s borrowing authority for 13 months without any spending conditions — a “clean bill” that was an unequivocal victory for Obama. It passed 221-201, with only 28 Republican votes. The Senate still has to approve the extension, but that’s considered a mere formality in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
Boehner’s retreat hardly came as a surprise.
Conservative lawmakers had failed to back a couple of proposed attachments aimed at Obama and his fellow Democrats. One would have approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the other would have repealed a provision of the health care law. Either of those faced unified Democratic opposition, so Boehner would have needed 218 Republican votes to pass it in the House. But conservatives were either determined to vote against the debt ceiling increase, no matter what, or found the provisions too small a price for their vote.
“When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” Boehner said.
Starting last year, Obama has steadfastly refused to negotiate over giving the Treasury Department the authority to borrow the money it needs to pay bills like Social Security benefits, payments on government debt and checks for federal workers.
For Boehner, however, not all was lost. He placed the burden of extending Treasury’s borrowing authority — not a politically popular vote — on the Democrats, and most members of his party got to vote no.
What’s more, the decision helped remove a potentially damaging diversion. Republican allies in the business community have long pleaded with Republicans not to play brinkmanship with the nation’s credit. Last year’s threat of default, followed by a partial government shutdown over stalled budget talks, harmed Republicans in the eyes of the public.
Instead, Boehner and his leadership team have decided to keep the political focus on Obama’s health care law, which they have targeted as the Achilles’ heel for Democrats in this election year.
It was the second time in two weeks that Boehner swept away an issue that threatened to overshadow the GOP attention on health care. He had outlined principles on how to achieve an overhaul of immigration law. But faced with a conservative outcry, Boehner last week deep-sixed the issue, declaring that immigration legislation this year was a long shot.
“Boehner’s thinking here is we have to pick the smarter fight,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior congressional leadership aide. “The smarter fight is Obamacare. If we get dragged into a protracted fight over the debt limit, like the one we saw over the government shutdown, it provides a distraction over the bigger issues the party can litigate.”
Conservative, tea party-aligned groups immediately objected to Boehner’s decision, calling it a capitulation and demanding that Republicans vote against the debt ceiling increase.
“When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt ceiling increase, we thought it was a joke,” Andy Roth of the conservative Club for Growth wrote in an email to congressional offices. “Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party.”
But among lawmakers, the reaction was muted. When Boehner announced his decision in a private meeting with Republicans, one participant described the reaction as resigned silence. And during scheduled debate on the House floor, Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, was the only Republican to speak, reluctantly giving his support for allowing Treasury to borrow more money.
“While I believe that we must increase our debt limit, I’m clearly not satisfied that there are no provisions that would help us address the long-term drivers of this debt,” he said, before becoming one of the 28 Republicans who voted for the measure.
This all could change if Republicans win control of the Senate in November. Republicans would then control Congress and Obama might have little recourse but to accept some Republican demands.
A Republican victory in the fall, Madden said, would mean “the most recent electoral mandate would be favorable to the Republican bargaining position.”
Boehner, for one, was not giving up. Asked if the “Boehner Rule” was dead, he said, “I hope not.”