As the manufactured crisis that is the debt ceiling debate drags on, House Speaker John Boehner finds himself in a fix: he has built for himself a box from which he cannot escape.
Boehner's box has these dimensions:
- 240 Republicans in the House of Representatives;
- 192 Democrats in the House;
- Up to 60 of Boehner's Republicans are Tea Partiers who are on record as opposing any increase in the debt ceiling, under any conditions;
- It takes 216 AYE votes to pass legislation in the House.
The practical effect of this arithmetic is that there is no majority caucus in the House. And Boehner does not even lead the largest of the three minority caucuses -- Nancy Pelosi does.
But never mind that. Boehner is the Speaker of the House -- the whole House, not just the Republican caucus -- and doing whatever it takes to avoid a default, or even a credit downgrade, is his job. And Boehner knows that even if he can count on AYE votes from all of his 180 more "moderate" (i.e., less crazy) Republicans, he will still need the support of at least 37 Democrats to pass any bill to increase the debt ceiling.
It gets worse. Whatever bill the House passes will have to be acceptable to the Senate, the President, and the credit rating agencies. Yet any such bill would probably be unacceptable to at least half the remaining moderate Republicans.
So Boehner's job will be to cobble together a coalition of about 90 moderate Republicans and at least 127 moderate Democrats to pass a bill that raises the debt ceiling and preserves America's gold-plated AAA credit rating. And he has four days to do it.
That's right: the bill that passes both chambers of Congress and gains the President's signature will probably pass in the House with more Democratic than Republican votes.
That is unlikely to happen, for host of reasons:
1. Boehner can't stand his ground. He has tried to do that for seven months, without success. Now, he doesn't even have the support of his caucus.
There is discussion of a short-term (say, 10 day) extension. But that only postpones the inevitable. If seven months of negotiation have not yielded satisfactory results, it's unlikely 10 more days will lead to a better outcome. Besides, the August 2nd date, or thereabouts, is the day we run out of money to pay the bills. Boehner needs to appeal to the country's creditors, employees, and benefit recipients if he wants an extension.
2. Variations on rigid Republican themes are unlikely to work. For example, Boehner's caucus will never vote for increased revenues no matter how many plan variations Boehner dreams up, but the rating agencies will never endorse a plan that does not include some new revenues.
3. Politically, he can't capitulate to the Democrats or endorse a "clean bill." Boehner's caucus would vote en masse against any such bill and Cantor's faction of the caucus, if not the whole caucus, would most likely mutiny.
4. Boehner must therefore build a coalition. But Washington in recent years has been riven by partisanship. There's no indication that coalition building is even possible in the poisoned climate of D.C. Nor is there any indication that Boehner, a dedicated party politician, would have the skills to build and manage it even if the rank-and-file were willing. Which they aren't.
5. If Boehner tries to divide his caucus to isolate conservatives and form a coalition of moderates from both parties, his caucus will probably oust him as Speaker. Yet for the long-term survival of the GOP, Boehner may have to do to his caucus what the Tea Partiers want to do to the country: blow it up in order to save it. In its present form, the Republican brand is almost irretrievably tarnished.
6. If the US defaults on its obligations or its credit is downgraded, Boehner risks almost certain defeat in the November 2012 election, and he may be forced to resign as Speaker in the meantime.
Those are the six sides of Boehner's box. And who holds the key that can unlock that box? Nancy Pelosi. Only she can deliver the Democratic votes Boehner needs to forge a truly bipartisan bill and save Boehner's hide.