Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio took the podium Tuesday at a private Republican Conference meeting across the street from the Capitol, well aware that he was out of options.
His flock had once again left him, and so a bill suspending the nation’s borrowing cap until March 2015 would come to the floor without preconditions, he announced. Then, shunning questions, he hastily walked offstage to stunned silence.
A moment later, he reconsidered and returned.
“You’re not even going to clap for me for getting this monkey off of our backs?” he implored, drawing applause from many of his rank-and-file members, still loyal to the embattled House figurehead.
The debt ceiling has become more burden to Boehner than boon. The exchange, reiterated by several sources inside the room, points to a fundamental shift in dynamics in the debate over how to extend the nation’s borrowing authority. Boehner’s defeatist approach and the tepid, mixed reaction of his membership underscore a growing realization in the conference that the tactic of attaching legislative demands to a debt limit increase is simply unsustainable.
Absent a Republican takeover of the Senate or a newfound cohesion around realistic demands in the House, many GOP congressmen said there is little chance that Republican leaders will again be able to use the debt limit as a point of leverage when it is next approached in early 2015.
Still, Boehner sounded a note of measured resilience when asked whether this vote marks the last time Republicans can extract large concessions from Democrats in exchange for a debt limit increase.
“I would hope not,” he told reporters after the conference meeting. “This is a lost opportunity.”
House Republican leaders knew from the start they were heading into this debt limit battle without a united army. Members and aides familiar with the whip operation acknowledged that through informal discussions with members, they had come to the realization that they could not pass a debt limit increase on the strength of only Republican votes.
Instead of the furious whip operation behind a 2011 debt limit bill — Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tried to buttonhole the entire freshman GOP delegation of South Carolina in his office, for instance — Republican leaders knew their weakness and let their members drive the process.
“You had numbers to play with that time, whereas now, I don’t know how much wiggle room you have, so you need Dem support,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the GOP whip team. “You have a number of new members who have pledged to never increase the debt limit no matter what, and that number puts us dangerously close to never being able to get to 218.”
Boehner highlighted that reality earlier in the week, when he told reporters that even a bill calling for the canonization of Mother Theresa would not make a debt ceiling increase acceptable to his members.
So from the start, leaders laid out options they thought could pick off Democratic stragglers who would be wary of heading into an election year with a stain on their voting record. A measure spurring action on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which pits environmentalists against union and business interests, could have split some Democrats, they thought. Leaders also toyed with a change to the Affordable Care Act or a formula that controls Medicare spending on physicians.
Finally, at a specially called Monday afternoon conference meeting, Boehner announced that the House would vote on a debt limit increase that also headed off scheduled cuts to military pension cost-of-living adjustments, cuts agreed to as part of the bipartisan budget deal last year.
It was a halfhearted effort, some aides said, undertaken only to show members that the numbers needed to pass the measure were simply not available. Earlier in the day, Boehner had placed a telephone call to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking her for votes. Pelosi insisted, as she had publicly, that nothing short of a clean debt limit increase would be acceptable.
“Even if you add 10 things that I love, that’s dirty,” she told Boehner, according to two sources familiar with the call.
Unlike in 2011, Democrats strengthened their hand by sticking together. Using similar language, President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Pelosi repeatedly refused to negotiate or pay a ransom.
Added to that, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had predicted privately to his members last year, House Republicans had lost the upper hand by engaging Democrats over federal spending in October, a fiscal staring contest that led to a partial government shutdown.
“Democrats learned a lesson when we negotiated when we shouldn’t have and Republicans learned a lesson when they refused to negotiate when they should have,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “The tactic of threatening default has lost its legitimacy, because it failed.”
The response from Boehner’s conference in the Monday meeting was nothing short of hostile, with several members chastising leadership for not fighting. Others beseeched conference members to cast aside their far-flung demands and unify around one solid proposal.
A central problem, one Republican member noted under condition of anonymity, is that leaders took a hostage they were not willing to shoot. The Republican Party’s business interests are too entrenched to allow a breach of the debt limit and the potential economic calamity that would ensue, despite populist furor for such a move, the member said.
“The only way we could win this fight is if we could make the president think we’re crazy enough to do it, get the business community to chill out and then somehow win the PR battle with the American people by saying we have to deal with these bigger issues, and we can’t do any of that unless we’re unified, and we’re not,” the member said.
The landscape could change if the Senate comes under Republican control following the midterm elections, several members noted. “I think that if we have a different Senate, it’s a completely different story,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. “Right now, I think that the leadership has become very frustrated with Harry Reid’s iron fist.”
But if the status quo holds, the debt limit will remain a monkey on Boehner’s back.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.