Tacking Right: How John Boehner Convinced Republicans To Back His Debt Limit Plan

Roll Call Photos/Newscom

After his members dealt him a stunning defeat Thursday, and forced him, for the second time to pull and amend his plan to raise the debt limit, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has figured a way out.

Once-reluctant Republicans — including Reps. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jeff Landry (R-LA), and Phil Gingrey (R-GA) — streamed out of a House GOP caucus meeting Friday morning to announce they’d changed their minds, and will now support Boehner’s bill.But Boehner didn’t pull it off by cajoling members or twisting their arms. He had to fundamentally change his legislation — to make it even more of a non-starter with Democrats, who have already vowed to kill the plan.

To lure members, Boehner has dangled a familiar carrot. Though the plan would avoid a default in August, he included in his legislation a new requirement that the Congress pass a constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment before the debt ceiling can be raised in the future, when the government once again runs out of borrowing authority several months from now.

Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, so the plan would essentially force reluctant Democrats to vote for the BBA in the coming months or send the country into default.

One version of the BBA has been lurking on the outskirts of this debate for months, but Boehner’s is different in at least one key way, Gingrey confirmed. Previous versions of the BBA have included a provision holding that Congress can not raise taxes without the assent of a two-thirds supermajority in both the House and Senate. It constituted a de facto requirement that the government balance its budget by cutting or eliminating federal programs en masse.

Boehner’s does not include that requirement, and thus, on its own, has significant Democratic support. It mimics a Clinton-era Balanced Budget Amendment that passed the House and came within one vote of the 67 required to pass in the Senate.

But it also adds a new ransom demand into the hostage situation. Not only would Boehner’s bill require Congress to pass and the President to sign a $1.8 trillion deficit reduction package to avoid default in the months ahead — it now also would force Democrats to help Republicans send the BBA off to the states for ratification, and touch off costly battles in some of those states if it looked like three-fourths of them might agree to the plan.

So faced with the reality that he’d ultimately have to cut a deal with Democrats to raise the debt limit, Boehner took his plan in an even more conservative direction, to assure passage in the House with GOP votes only. His legislation should pass the House and die in the Senate today. Congress runs out of borrowing authority at midnight Tuesday.