Why Boehner capitulated

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) abrupt decision to capitulate and hand President Obama a straightforward debt-ceiling increase resulted from simmering divisions that have virtually paralyzed his majority.

On an issue that once defined his Speakership, Boehner is now confronting a president who won’t negotiate and a conference that can’t coalesce around an offer.

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“We don’t have 218 votes, and when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” the Speaker told reporters on Tuesday, summing up the fix he found himself in on the debt limit. “We’ve seen it before. We see it again.”

Time and again over the last six months, rank-and-file Republicans have rejected their leadership’s proposals for attaching policy strings to extensions of the nation’s borrowing limit — most recently on Monday evening, when conservatives said “no” to a plan to reverse $6 billion in cuts to military pensions enacted in December.

While Boehner spoke only of the debt limit on Tuesday, internal divisions have taken down bills or stymied progress on a host of issues in recent years, including immigration, appropriations bills, a major highway proposal and an alternative to Obama’s healthcare reform law.

“There’s a great deal of frustration on the part of leadership because members are all over the map, and it makes it very difficult to govern at the end of the day,” Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said.

On the debt limit, Boehner has had to beat a slow and steady retreat from his original demands of equal or greater spending cuts or reforms in exchange for higher borrowing.

While Republicans won token concessions for debt-limit extensions in 2013, the Speaker finally stood down on Tuesday, telling his conference he would bring a clean, year-long extension of the debt limit to the floor and allow Democrats to pass it.

The announcement was met with silence, according to lawmakers in the room.

“Disappointed, I think, would be the mood,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. “Everyone understands where the Speaker is on this, and many people offered a sympathetic view of where he was.”

After the press conference, a rueful Boehner crooned the Disney song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” on the way out the door.

But members said they weren’t fooled. 

“This is not fun for him, to say the least,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.

Throughout the day, Republicans vented their frustration in every direction — at the White House and Senate Democrats, at their leadership and at their own colleagues.

Even as conservative activists blasted Boehner in statements, members largely absolved him of blame. 

“The frustration the conference has is not with the Speaker. It’s with President Obama,” said conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who voted against Boehner’s reelection and has suggested the House needs new leadership in the next Congress.

Boehner’s allies argued that the Speaker, by steering members away from a head-on confrontation, had saved his party from a repeat of its politically damaging defeat after the government shutdown last fall. Boehner began lowering expectations for a debt-limit victory weeks ago, and conservatives like Labrador publicly argued for putting up a clean bill that would be passed by Democrats.

Yet if the frustration did not erupt at Boehner, it manifested itself in back-biting between members on the two wings of the party.

Inside the Republican meeting on Tuesday, centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.) stood up to complain that conservatives who rarely supported fiscal plans were once again driving the leadership’s considerations.

“I’m not going to let the country default on its obligations under any circumstances,” said Dent, one of 28 Republicans to support the clean debt-limit extension. 

“I think more consideration should be given to those members who have the capacity to vote ‘yes’ on the debt ceiling than those who will always be voting ‘no,’ ” he added, describing his message to the party.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said he hoped the moment would be “a wake-up call” for conservatives who have often defied the leadership.

“The reality is we’ve got to come to the realization that we’re not in the majority out in D.C. We’re in the minority,” he said. “So how do we get to yes on something without, you know, having to be pure all the time and say, ‘we’ve got to govern?’

“Unfortunately there’s a number in our party unwilling to make that tough decision,” Kinzinger continued. “I hope they come around to it, because they’re not getting paid the big bucks to make easy decisions.”

Looking ahead, Republicans said their only hope to avoid another debt-ceiling surrender in 2015 was to win the Senate in November and change the political dynamic.

In the meantime, members started to hash out ideas inside a meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee on Tuesday afternoon. But the result, Lankford said, was the same.

“There was a lot of stuff thrown around, but there was no consensus,” he said. “If we had a consensus, we’d already be voting on it today. That’s still the challenge.”