House GOP Caves on Debt Ceiling, Delaying Confrontation Until Spring

John Boehner blinked as the House backed off a threat to force a confrontation with Obama. Eleanor Clift on the politics behind the retreat.

The House easily passed a short-term extension of the debt ceiling Wednesday with much of the drama around the measure replaced by a dawning recognition of reality on the Republican side.

Speaker John Boehner failed to reach the necessary majority of 218 with Republicans alone, putting 199 votes on the tally board, while Democrats supplied the rest for a final total of 285 yeas to 144 nays.

There was never any doubt that the measure the GOP dubbed “No Budget No Pay” would pass, putting off a potential debt crisis until mid-May, but Democrats held off casting their yes votes until nearly the end of the scheduled vote period to force Republicans to step forward with their votes to support the bill. “We wanted to make it as difficult as possible for them,” says a Democratic leadership aide, who added, “It helps with primaries.”

Republicans campaigned on cutting spending and holding down the debt ceiling, and to turn around in the first month of the new Congress and violate their pledge sets them up for a primary challenge from the right. That’s precisely the scenario that Democrats believe boosts their chances to take back control of the House in 2014 and why they believe they got the best of both worlds: legislation that avoids a debt ceiling crisis, at least for now, and fodder for a 30-second ad in the next election.

The GOP has an advantage in this fight as well—the populist proposal to dock the pay of members of Congress if either the House or Senate fails to produce a budget. The principle that if you don’t do your job, you don’t get paid, is popular with voters, polling at 72 percent. That proved a powerful magnet for members in both parties. Adding the populist sweetener to the bitter pill of an increase in the government’s borrowing authority changed the conversation and put the Republicans in a better place from a public-relations standpoint than they’ve been in some time.

Democrats called the proposal to link pay to performance a gimmick, but acknowledged its appeal at a time when Congress’s approval rating is at a historic low. “If you polled the public on whether members of Congress should get paid at all, you’d get tremendous support,” says the Democratic leadership aide. That would of course mean that only the wealthiest people would be able to serve, a trend that is already evident, especially in the Senate. But that debate is for another day. Members of the House have no fear they would be impacted; they’ve passed a budget, it’s the Senate that’s on the hot seat.

“There’s nothing that irritates our members more than the fact that for nearly four years now the Senate has not done a budget,” Boehner told the Ripon Society, a long-established group of moderate Republicans. Making the case for his strategy to move the debt limit vote “out of the way” and focus on other fights more favorable to Republicans in March when the sequester kicks in and Congress must renew government appropriations, Boehner asked rhetorically, “Where are the smart fights? Where are the dumb fights that we have to stay away from? We’ve got a lot of big decisions to make ... about how we’re going to navigate the next 20 months and what our goals are and how do we defend ourselves in what I do believe is going to be a very hostile environment. All I know is, I’m up for the fight.”

After the debt-ceiling vote, both parties revved up their public-relations apparatus. Democrats sent out a press release with a compilation of quotes from Republican leaders decrying Washington’s tendency to govern by crisis and short-term gimmicks. “Washington has kicked the can down the road, kicked the can down the road, kicked the can down the road, and the American people think we’re crazy,” Boehner said last year.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a release calculating all the things that could have been accomplished during the time the Democratic Senate spent not producing a budget. Among them: the United States led the Allies to victory over the Axis powers, you could float across the globe nonstop in a hot-air balloon approximately 73 times, and you could earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Chicago in less time than it’s taken Senate Democrats to pass a budget.

The better question might be how much productive work could Congress do if it wasn’t always trying to make political hay with the debt ceiling.