John Boehner's Debt Ceiling Dilemma

The House Speaker needs to raise the debt limit, but still thinks that he can get some kind of concession from Democrats. He's wrong.

After last year's, which ended in ignominious defeat for House Republicans, John Boehner knows he can’t provoke another debt ceiling stand-off. At the same time, he doesn’t have the GOP votes to pass a clean extension—even after last year’s debacle, conservatives refuse to pay the nation’s bills without concessions to their priorities.

It’s an insane position that leaves Boehner and his team with little room to maneuver. But, on Monday, they managed to square the circle and craft a plan that pushes the process forward with an unexpected proposal:

Despite the uncertain fate, Boehner’s team moved ahead with the option linking a restoration of recently cut military pension benefits to a one-year extension of the Treasury’s borrowing authority. The cost of restoring that cut to military pensions, about $7 billion, would be offset by an extension, by one year, of planned automatic spending cuts to entitlement programs.

In other words, Republican leaders are demanding a spending increase in return for raising the debt limit, which is a huge shift from previous negotiations, where Republicans called for huge spending cuts, if not a complete dismantling of the welfare state. You could even call it a “cave” on part of Boehner and his allies.

But it’s hard to see how will work out for the House Speaker. First it’s not likely that conservative Republicans—who hate most social programs—will agree to the higher spending component. And second, there’s the simple fact that Democrats—and the White House—have committed to a stance of “no negotiations” on the debt limit, which extends to everything, including an increase to military pensions.

There’s a straightforward solution to this problem, and that’s to approve a clean increase of the debt limit, even if it requires a huge number of Democratic votes. But, to do this, Republican leaders have to reject the limit as a tool for legislative hostage taking, which—in turn—requires them to reject conservative demands.

Or, put another way, when will John Boehner lead?

Update: It turns out Boehner has decided to lead after all, and will introduce a clean extension of the debt limit.