Washington’s Other Car Crash: Obama vs. the Boehner Rule

Obama is not going to bend on health care. Will John Boehner be able to accept that? By Michael Tomasky.

The freakish shooting on Capitol Hill stopped time for a while yesterday as everyone’s attention was diverted from the metaphorical car crash we’re all living through to an actual one. But it didn’t stop the clock ticking, as the sun rose this morning over the fourth day of a shuttered government and 13 days away from default.

John Boehner’s office yesterday leaked some news that at first blush seemed conciliatory, but at second and third blushes was not, and so the face-off continues, and two central facts are now clearer to me than they were before.

First, Barack Obama is not going to budge (nor should he). Second, Obama and his team have no real way to make Boehner do anything. All Obama has on his side are the facts; in Washington, usually an unfortunate situation in which to find oneself. Whether the facts will be enough to avert disaster will hinge largely on whether Boehner can bring himself to accept them.

I spoke Wednesday morning with two senior administration officials who said, on background, the following: Obama won’t negotiate anything about health care. They were adamant on the point. He believes that letting a minority faction of the minority party force the executive to (in effect) pay a ransom to avoid a default or prolonged shutdown is unconscionable. He evidently feels very strongly about this. One of the two compared it to how strongly Obama felt about pushing ahead with health-care reform after Scott Brown won that Massachusetts special election. Giving an inch here, Obama believes, would set a hideous precedent for future presidents. He believes doing so will weaken not just his presidency, but the office.

The situation is very different, these officials said, from the 2011 debt-limit talks, which were the low point of this presidency. Two things were different then. First, the Republicans had a clear message: We spend too much, we demand a dollar in cuts for every dollar we increase the debt limit. That was clear and pretty popular, whereas today, the GOP message is muddled and unpopular. Second, Obama isn’t running for reelection. The freedom that comes with not having to seek votes can sometimes fortify the spine.

So, Obama isn’t bending. And he shouldn’t. If this were a debate about spending levels, he probably would (remember, by the way, that the Democratic resolution, the one passed by the Senate, accepts spending going forward at Republican levels!). But it’s about a group trying to derail legislation that was passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court, and went into effect this very week with 7 million Americans trying to sign up for coverage in just its first two days. Obama can’t compromise on that. Neither can he compromise on the principle that raising the debt limit—which is Congress paying the bills it approved, not the bills Obama approved—must happen without strings. He made that error in 2011. Not again.

But it also came clear to me in listening to these officials that they have no leverage over Boehner. There are the facts. There’s corporate and Wall Street pressure. There’s public pressure. Those are meaningful things, but they’re not concrete. And Boehner just keeps talking out of both sides of his mouth, as he has since the day he became speaker. His aides, or someone with his approval, floated the story Thursday afternoon before the shooting that he was prepared to pass a debt-limit increase with mostly Democratic votes. But then his press aide said he would not pass a “clean” increase. But a clean increase is the only kind Democrats will vote for. Boehner knows this. He’s just talking nonsense and probably has no idea what he’s going to do.

Maybe he thinks he can tell the rowdies: Give me the debt-limit increase, and I’ll get something from the White House on the shutdown—I’ll get concessions out of Obama in return for reopening the government. Maybe not on Obamacare, but maybe on something else. But will that be enough for them? Hard to see how it would be.

It’s also hard to see Boehner trying to dictate terms to his hard right. They’ve been dictating the terms to him every step of the way. He’s letting the 30 most extreme House members run the show. And in doing so, he has in effect created a situation where they must approve of anything he places before the House for a vote.

Stop and think about this with me. Everybody carries on about the Hastert Rule, which holds that nothing can come up for a vote in the House if it doesn’t have the support of a majority of the majority. That would be 117 Republicans. Along with half of Democrats—100—that number could pass things. But Boehner has now reached the point where he’s way beyond Hastert. There’s now a Boehner Rule, and it’s the Hastert on steroids. He’s trying to make sure all Republicans, right on up to Steve King and Louie Gohmert, the two who out-Bachmann Bachmann, support what he does. Now it’s not just the majority of the majority; it’s pretty much all of the majority that must agree, or he’s not pulling the trigger.

You’re thinking: Oh, these things always get worked out at five minutes ‘til midnight. At the very least, they’re put off again and the crisis the media warn us about never seems to come. Sure, that could happen here.

But there are specific factors that makes this one different. This isn’t about budget numbers, which can always be finessed. This is about a health-care law that is reality and the setting of precedents on executive power. You don’t negotiate those. It’s also about telling extremists that you cannot hold the whole country hostage. That’s the noble part. The scary part is that standing firm means counting on Boehner to see the facts and do the right thing. This isn’t easy for a man who is surrounded by people who clearly live in a fantasy world, where a shutdown is healthy belt-tightening and a default is no big deal. But the officials I spoke with did say that there is no way that Boehner could have left that Oval Office meeting Wednesday night thinking that Obama was bluffing. I hope they’re right. It’s the only hope we’ve got.