Why Boehner Gave Up on the Debt Ceiling

Republicans face a tricky decision: approve more public borrowing or shut down the government again Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Update: The House voted to raise the debt ceiling Tuesday evening without any policy strings attached. The vote was 221 to 201, with just 28 Republicans joining 193 Democrats to advance the bill to the upper chamber.

Back in the summer of 2011, a newly-elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives brought the United States within inches of defaulting on its debt. In return for their last-minute cooperation in increasing the nation's ability to borrow, Democrats were obliged to concede enormous public spending cuts.

This time the tables have turned.

House Republicans will allow a vote Tuesday to raise the debt ceiling -- with no strings attached -- and avert an impending financial crisis on February 27, when the Treasury's coffers will have run out of money to repay its debts.

It's a simple, routine vote, but it's been a long journey to get to this point. Just 12 hours ago, in fact, Republican were promising a quite different strategy.

On Monday night, the Republican House leadership called a special meeting in the basement of the Capitol to address the looming deadline. It was hard to imagine Republicans could pull off anything but -- as they call it -- “a clean lift”.

The problem for Republicans is that their caucus cannot agree on a single course of action their entire majority would get behind. If they make big demands in exchange for extending the debt limit -- like major entitlement reform -- they will get votes from the ultra-conservative wing of the party but lose all hope of the Senate or White House agreeing. This strategy is no longer on the table as it led to the government shutdown in October for which the Republicans were blamed.

So the Republican leadership must woo Democratic votes in the House to raise the debt limit -- meaning that as long as Democrats remain united and ignore Republican blandishments, they hold the power on this vote. “We don’t have 218 votes,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday, referring to the number needed to reach a majority in the lower chamber, though current vacancies in the House mean 217 is the magic number. “When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”

On Monday night, Republicans weren't ready to admit defeat and go for a clean raising of the debt ceiling. By Tuesday morning, they were.

The Republican’s Plan B was to attach a policy to the debt limit bill that would appeal to Democrats. To that effect, Republicans finally emerged from their meeting Monday evening with a plan to tie the debt limit to an increase in military pensions, restoring cuts that were part of the cost-saving measures in the bipartisan budget deal agreed to just two months ago.

"All along, at the retreat, our leadership was saying they wanted to craft a plan that was no skin off the Democrats' backs -- that's a direct quote," Representative Matt Salmon, R-Arizona, told reporters Monday night, referring to the House Republican retreat two weeks ago.

But there was a big problem. Because Republicans insist that every spending increase must be paid for, Republicans wanted to offset the approximately $7 billion cost of restoring the pension benefits by extending mandatory automatic public spending cuts under the sequester by another year.

This is not a desirable outcome for Democrats, who largely entered into a budget deal with Republicans in December to ease the sequester cuts which were threatening to cripple the federal spending priorities, from paying for the military to scientific research.

"I'm hoping they put out a clean bill," Representative Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said Monday evening, noting that extending the sequester would be a hard pill for Democrats to swallow. "It's a very high price."

Democrats already know the pension cuts are bad politics, but would prefer to address the issue apart from the debt ceiling. That way, they might avoid locking in more sequester cuts and reaffirm the principle that the debt limit should not be used to force legislation through Congress. And since Boehner will not bring a bill to the floor that will fail to pass, all Democrats had to do to get their way is promise not to vote for the deal. It seems enough Democrats voiced dissent that the pensions for debt ceiling plan was scrapped.

But there's another reason Boehner caved on this round of debt ceiling negotiations -- politics. At the GOP retreat in January, Republican members were reportedly warned that their hardball strategy that led to the shutdown was a losing gambit. The best way to win big in the November midterms, it was said, was to raise the debt ceiling with minimal fuss to keep the public spotlight on Democrats and their unpopular health care law. In other words, don't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

So now Boehner is expected to bring a “clean lift” to the floor. It needs every Democratic vote as well as 16 Republican votes to pass the House and some believe that might be harder than it sounds. But there's not much time to think about it. The House will recess on Wednesday, be gone for two weeks, and return on February 26, just a day before the looming deadline.

Which is why the House will probably pull it together, raise the debt limit on Tuesday, and put the twisted mind games behind them -- at least until the next debt limit deadline.