After weeks of tumult over fiscal issues, we may actually be close to a minor deal on the debt ceiling, perhaps offering enough to keep the country from defaulting on its obligations. Whether or not any semblance of a united Republican caucus could survive even that vote remains to be seen.
The National Journal reported Tuesday morning that House Republican leadership could propose a short-term extension of the debt limit in order to push out the October 17 deadline set by the Treasury Department. The National Review's Robert Costa, based on reports from a caucus meeting, suggested a different pitch: a bill that would establish a group to negotiate on the debt ceiling, tied to a measure to pay the "essential" federal employees currently working. And there are reports that the Senate is considering a much more extensive measure, but may have trouble overcoming a Republican filibuster.
Update, 11:15 a.m.: The president again rejected any Republican proposal for negotiations.
Boehner Spox: "The pres. called the speaker again today to reiterate that he won't negotiate on a govt funding bill or debt limit increase"— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorpNBC) October 8, 2013
At this point, any progress (particularly on the debt ceiling) is good news. The Republican position isn't far from its existing one, to be sure, but it's at least a proposal. But even that could put at risk House Speaker John Boehner's fragile Republican alliance. It's clear that his strategy at this point, as it has been for weeks, is simply to hold his the caucus together, the pilot of a badly damaged plane praying to make it back to base safely.
Boehner's problem, in part, is that both of his wings are trying their best to fall off. Costa, who continues to document the fractures among House Republicans, reports that the right wing is skeptical of any solution to the shutdown and debt ceiling that doesn't include a rollback of the Affordable Care Act — the anti-Obamacare push that started this whole thing in the first place. "If it doesn’t have a full delay or defund of Obamacare," New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett told Costa, "I know I and many others will not be able to support whatever the leadership proposes." Garrett's colleague Ted Yoho of Florida, now famous for his deeply incorrect assessment of the debt ceiling, offers his own rationale: "Stay the course, don’t give in on it, that’s what the people in my district are saying. …We did a town hall the other day, and 74 percent of people said, 'don’t raise the debt ceiling.'"
That's the first wing Boehner's dealing with. (Or, more accurately, not really dealing with.) Costa also spoke with California Rep. Devin Nunes, who refers to his conservative colleagues as "lemmings": "They don’t want to follow the leadership, so they just kind of follow each other and go off the cliff." Nunes explains how this impedes the party's ability to resolve the current dispute.
"We’ve essentially been at 200 to 205 votes for the whole year since you have this secret cadre of members that has been continually meeting, not to plot about how to get rid of Obamacare, not to plot about how to save this country from the leftists, but they’ve been plotting on how they themselves can get power. But they simply don’t have the votes."
Nunes's frustration might as well be with the constituents of his conservative colleagues, including the media that bolsters their arguments and the activists that flood members of Congress with emails and tweets. There's a reason Boehner won't hold a vote to fund the government that would almost certainly pass with votes from nearly every Democrat and two dozen Republicans: Those Republicans would be battered. One of the most obvious signs of where the nexus of power within the Republican caucus came on Monday. Nunes, once a supporter of passing a funding bill without any amendments, publicly and embarrassingly backtracked on that position. Nunes does want to follow the leadership — his switch on that vote was obviously inspired by some conversation with some party honcho — but it's not clear that plan will help him avoid going off the cliff.
To this point, Boehner's opposition has been far better at maintaining both the appearance and practice of unity. The biggest split that's emerged has been over an increase to the debt ceiling. On Monday, Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling expressed support for a short-term increase to the limit — which, again, could prompt an economic apocalypse if it doesn't happen. The response from Democrats was strongly negative, in part because it was seen as a step toward compromise that President Obama has been adamant about rejecting in any form. ("What does short-term buy us? That buys us Thanksgiving in Washington," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told Politico. But the size of a debt ceiling increase, which dictates the length it lasts, was probably always something that was up for consideration, however.)
That response is a sign that Democrats are ready for a vigorous fight. The administration is clearly anxious to resolve the two outstanding issues, but Senate Democrats — specifically, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — appears to have a firm hold on the party's reins. Reid initially kiboshed a meeting between the White House and congressional leaders and has, according to Politico, ensured that Vice President Joe Biden is excluded from any compromise discussions, a role he's played in the past. Those deals "rubbed Democrats raw. He gave up too much, they said. And for that, they have frozen him out — at least for now." Reid's level of confidence that Obama will stand strong in this fight isn't hard to discern.
Which brings us back to a possible debt ceiling deal. In addition to the threat of a Republican filibuster, Democrats face opposition from Senators Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor, who represent heavily Republican states. A short-term solution may be easier for Manchin and Pryor as well, particularly if responding to something from the House.
Assuming the House can pass anything without a full revolt from conservatives. Several have publicly rejected the idea that not increasing the debt ceiling would be bad; Rep. Steve King suggested that the country "redefine 'default'," as though that would somehow make the predicted effects of the default softer. Slate's Dave Weigel notes that this line of thinking isn't uncommon among Tea Party members and activists. We've said bad things would happen in the past if action wasn't taken, the argument goes, and they were never that bad.
This may be the time that things get that bad. For Republicans, they're already close: A majority of Americans blame the party for the shutdown. Consumer confidence is plummeting. The House GOP is being pilloried by even normally sympathetic editorial boards. The plane is going down. But Boehner holds out hope that the Democrats will crash first.