Once in a great while, developments in Congress can be simple and complicated at the same time. This afternoon is one of those instances.
Let’s start with the easy one: it’s become abundantly clear today that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can either make far-right House Republicans happy or he can prevent U.S. defaulting on its debts. He can’t do both.
That’s the simple part of the story. The more complicated part is worth sitting down for.
House Republicans’ strategy as the debt ceiling clock ticks down: go harder right.
John Boehner found out this morning that he does not have the votes to pass a plan similar to what Senate Republicans are considering, even with added Obamacare sweetners for his conservative flank. And even if he did, Democrats immediately rejected the idea.
This morning, Boehner thought he had a plan: he’d sabotage the bipartisan package negotiated in the Senate, push his own alternative through the House today, score a modest ransom, and tell Democrats to pay up or else.
Within a couple of hours, that plan collapsed. Democrats in the House, Senate, and White House immediately rejected the idea, which Boehner expected. But then many House Republicans balked, too – they said it wasn’t right-wing enough – which Boehner was unprepared for.
So, with two days remaining until the Oct. 17 deadline, the House’s plan … doesn’t exist.
And that leaves Boehner with an interesting decision to make.
He could throw up his arms, tell conservatives they had their shot, and accept the Senate deal immediately. Most House Republicans would be angry, but House Democrats are already on board, and if only one-tenth of the House GOP endorsed the policy, the crises would be over (at least until next year).
Alternatively, the Speaker could push his plan further to the right to make the unhinged Tea Party wing more likely to support it, while guaranteeing that the bill would fail in the Senate.
Boehner appears to prefer the latter, and there are multiple reports that contraception restrictions will be added to the House bill to help pick up far-right votes.
If House Republicans manage to stack the bill with enough conservative treats to make Tea Partiers happy, they’ll pass the proposal, send it to the Senate, and see it die immediately.
Meanwhile, the process to forge a bipartisan compromise in the Senate is on hold, as Senate GOP leaders talk to House GOP leaders about what, if anything, might pass the lower chamber.
It’s been staring the political world in the face for weeks, but the obvious resolution to this hasn’t changed: Boehner must govern, which means passing a bill with Democratic support and snubbing his party’s extremists.
The Speaker has resisted this reality, and he continues to put up a fight, but the time for games is quickly evaporating.