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

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

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."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a statement, opined that Boehner had to "add a gimmick or two to get their bill past the tea party." But he noted that Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray had already announced earlier in the day the Senate would move a budget resolution through committee and to the floor this year.

Even so, Reid said he wants to "give credit where credit is due, and thank Speaker Boehner for his leadership here in defusing another fight over the debt ceiling."

In fact, Boehner and other top House Republican leaders were laying the groundwork for Wednesday's vote even before the House GOP gathered last week for its annual issues and policy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The hurdle was to sell the almost contrary idea of temporarily allowing more debt -- as a necessary strategic step in order to allow more time to take on the nation's skyrocketing debt problem.

To get there, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers explained to National Journal on Wednesday that Boehner and other House GOP leaders promised rank-and-file members they would stick to the cuts agreed to in the sequestration process, which on March 1 are to lower 2013 discretionary spending to $974 trillion unless Democrats agree to mandatory cuts as a replacement.

Rogers said Boehner has promised the sequestration cut, which is split evenly between military and discretionary domestic spending, "will stay in effect unless it shall be replaced by other spending of equal size from other parts of the budget." And he said Boehner has promised that the $974 billion figure will also be reflected in the spending measure needed later in March to keep government running for the remainder of the year.

But Obama and congressional Democrats are insisting that such deficit-reduction maneuvers also include new tax revenues, and so the upcoming fights over the sequester and how to keep government running are likely to represent the bigger battles ahead for Boehner, as opposed to Wednesday's temporary debt-ceiling vote.

On top of that, Boehner himself underscored in a statement that the House is committed to a policy of balancing the budget within 10 years.

If that is the deal Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan have made with conservatives, then Steve Bell, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said, "I foresee nothing but really serious difficulties for Boehner and the Republican Party in the years ahead."

"What I can tell you as a practical matter is what will have to happen [in cuts] to the domestic and entitlement areas will simply be too much even for the vast majority of the Republican conference to accept," said Bell.

For now, top House Republican aides seemed to be basking in the view that Boehner is gaining some traction with his victory in Wednesday's vote -- and in what appears to be a failed effort by top Democrats, who had urged their members not to vote for the bill.

"I think the whole purpose of this exercise was to focus further down the road--on dealing with sequester and [continuing resolution]," said a senior House GOP aide. "It takes the threat, the cudgel that the Democrats could use that we are threatening the viability of the nation off the table, so we can start making some of the hard choices we've got to make about spending going forward."

"A victory for Boehner? I think it's a victory for the conference," said the aide.

Amy Harder contributed.