How Boehner Tamed His Unruly Caucus and Passed the Debt-Ceiling Bill

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The speaker warded off national debt default until at least May. But was the cost too great?

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

John Boehner is finally learning how to tame the rebellious House GOP caucus. The passage on Wednesday of a measure allowing the Treasury to keep borrowing money until May 19 warded off the risk of a debt default that could have been politically disastrous for Republicans. And it marked a win for the House speaker, who managed to rally his party behind the legislation only weeks after suffering embarrassing setbacks during the fiscal-cliff standoff and after narrowly surviving a revolt in the caucus earlier this month.

But the victory came at a price. Boehner and other GOP leaders have embraced a stark budget austerity that is winning plaudits with conservatives but may prove politically risky for the party, because it would require deep cuts in popular social programs such as Medicare, even as the GOP remains adamantly opposed to raising additional tax revenue from the rich.

The budget austerity will guide the GOP's approach to a series of clashes in the coming months with President Obama and congressional Democrats.

What exactly did Boehner have to promise fellow Republicans for their support on the debt-limit measure?

The commitments he's made to rank-and-file members regarding the "sequester" cuts set to hit March 1, along with another short-term spending bill later in the month needed to keep government funded, will come due then. More significant is that Boehner has committed to writing a House budget that will erase the nation's annual deficits within 10 years.

"That's going to be pretty damn tough," said William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. It will be especially hard if Boehner tries to do so without allowing more tax revenue to be put on the table. Effectively, then, that would require a "scorched earth" policy on entitlements and other spending, Hoagland said.

At least for now, Wednesday's vote to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling provided Boehner with a respite from his recent woes. The tumult of the fiscal cliff led to questions about whether he had lost control of his own GOP conference.

Those embarrassments included his having to scrap his "Plan B" legislation on the fiscal cliff and later being forced to rely more on Democrats than his own party members to get passage of both the final fiscal-cliff deal and then a Hurricane Sandy relief bill. Much of this reflected lasting anger among conservatives over Boehner's deals with Obama and the Democratic-led Senate last session. The prevailing view among many conservative House members is that he has been too willing to compromise and has caved in too easily.

The tension boiled over on the first day of the new Congress when some conservatives tried to oust Boehner as speaker. The Ohio Republican survived that rebellion, narrowly. Just seven more Republican defections could have blocked him from getting the 214 votes needed, a simple majority of the lawmakers who voted.

Many of the members in the dump-Boehner faction seemed ready over the weekend to reject the debt-ceiling increase, which would have once again put the speaker against the ropes.

But instead, this bill was passed 285-144, largely on the backs of 199 of Boehner's fellow Republicans. In fact, Republicans lined up nearly 6-to-1 in support of the measure. Just 33 of them ended up opposing it -- and many of those only after passage became assured during the vote-counting.

Senate Democrats plan to take up the measure in coming days.

Meanwhile, Boehner and other Republicans are playing down the bill's main purpose -- the debt-limit increase -- by emphasizing its provision to force the Senate to pass a budget plan this spring for the first time in four years, or see members' pay withheld. In fact, the name they've given the measure is the "No Budget, No Pay Act."

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Billy House

Bill House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal.

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