How Boehner Is Quietly Working To Defuse The Debt Limit Fight

With the government shut down and his back against the wall, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is quietly putting out signals that he’ll defuse the coming threat of a debt default in the only feasible way: by enlisting Democrats.

According to leaks by anonymous House Republicans to the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, Boehner has privately told colleagues he won’t permit the first ever default on the country’s debt and might lift the borrowing limit with Democratic votes if necessary. In other words, he’s willing to break the so-called Hastert Rule and bring up a bill that lacks the support of a majority of House Republicans.

“Anything that is going to pass the Senate and get signed by President Obama will certainly get Democratic votes in the House,” a senior House GOP aide told TPM.

That Boehner permitted this leak compromises his position that the debt limit won’t be raised ahead of the Oct. 17 deadline without reforms attached. And it opens up a pathway to not only averting a default crisis but also ending the ongoing government shutdown. Although it’s not clear what his endgame is, a single bill to reopen the government and avert default, without any strings attached, would likely pass the House with a mix of Democratic and Republican votes, along with the Senate and be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

“This could be the beginnings of a significant breakthrough,” said No. 3 Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), responding to the leaks. “Of course, Democrats retain our position that the full faith and credit of the United States cannot be held hostage to achieve a political agenda.”

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are adamant about not giving up any policy concessions to ensure the country can continue to pay its bills. It’s a matter of principle: they view GOP demands as an attempt at extortion that could upend the pillars of democracy by encouraging future losing parties to threaten disaster if they don’t get their way. They’re determined not to enshrine that precedent because if they cave now, they believe Republicans will use the next fiscal deadline to demand more concessions.

“You can’t have a president held hostage,” Reid told reporters on Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Republicans are feeling the pinch as they shoulder the blame for the first government shutdown since 1996, which is now in its fourth day. Moderate and long-serving House Republicans are anxious and want to end the shutdown. It’s these Republicans whom Boehner can rely on as he has been unable to keep his ultraconservative members in line. Conservatives refuse to accept Democrats’ debt limit stance, insisting on extracting concessions on Obamacare or other issues.

The deadline is still two weeks away, so Boehner isn’t entertaining questions about the debt limit publicly. “Listen, the issue right now is the continuing resolution to open the government,” he told reporters after a closed-door meeting on Friday. He’s also keeping up the fighting words against Obama. “I listened to the president explain some 20 times why he’s not going to negotiate,” he said. “This isn’t some damn game.”

It made little sense for Boehner to alienate conservatives in order to avert the shutdown, with a much more serious crisis less than three weeks away. Now he is contemplating merging the government funding and debt limit measures. The logic is if he’s going to ditch conservatives, as appears inevitable, he’s better off taking one tough vote than two. The move would infuriate the right, and potentially put Boehner’s speakership at risk. But managing expectations ahead of time helps cushion the fall. And he has broken the Hastert Rule several times this year to keep taxes low during the fiscal cliff, authorize aid for Hurricane Sandy victims and renew the Violence Against Women Act.

If there’s a time for Boehner to violate the majority-of-the-majority principle again, the potential collapse of the U.S. and global economy might be it.

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