Boehner Holds Weaker Cards In High-Stakes Political Poker

Both the Speaker and the President are bluffing over the debt limit. But the President has a better hand.

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner arrives for work at the Capitol on Oct. 7, 2013, in Washington

President Barack Obama says he will not pay House Republicans a ransom in exchange for re-opening the government or raising the debt ceiling. House Speaker John Boehner insists he doesn’t have the votes to do either without any White House concessions.

Both men are bluffing. And while Obama’s play is a risky one, Boehner’s bluff is worse: it just doesn’t look very credible.

In a Sunday interview with ABC News, Boehner said the U.S. faced the specter of its first ever federal default if Obama didn’t cave to GOP demands. “There are not the votes in the House,” Boehner declared, to pass a so-called “clean” bill to reopen the government. “The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit,” he added. “And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.”

Boehner has won this type of high-stakes negotiation before. For three years, Boehner has occasionally used the Tea Party wing that normally makes his life miserable to his advantage. In the 2011 debt-limit fight, he was able to invoke his restive rank-and-file as leverage in the standoff. As long as he convinced Obama that there were enough people in his caucus who wouldn’t blink, he could wring concessions out of the White House.

(MORE: Foroohar: The Debt Ceiling Crisis Is Threatening Your Quality of Life)

But this is now a less credible threat. A few days before Boehner went on TV to talk tough about the threat of default, he was reportedly confiding to fellow Republicans that he would never allow it. Failure to hike the debt limit would unleash a chain of economic calamities, if not the first ever federal default. Boehner doesn’t want that to be his political epitaph.

To be sure, there are plenty of House Republicans who are willing, if not eager, to hold the line. But if the votes aren’t there for clean bills, that’s only because Boehner hasn’t allowed them to come forward. As Speaker, he and his leadership team control the floor. A clean bill to reopen the government, and a companion measure to lift the debt limit, would draw unanimous or near-unanimous support from the chamber’s 200 Democrats; all but five are on record supporting such a vote. Nearly two-dozen Republicans are also publicly on board. Some say the number is far higher. If Boehner let a clean funding bill hit the House floor, “it would probably get 300 votes,” New York Representative Peter King, a Republican who has been critical of the party’s shutdown strategy, told TIME last week. “Two thirds of Republicans privately want a clean [bill to fund the government].”

The White House is convinced that Boehner, a reasonable man, is not prepared to be the guy who tanks the U.S. economy by blocking a vote. Democrats suspect that as the Oct. 17 deadline draws closer, Boehner’s asking price will plummet. After all, that’s exactly what Republicans did in the run-up to the shutdown. As the clock ticked toward midnight on Sept. 30, a House GOP conference that began negotiations by threatening to gut Obamacare cycled through four proposed concessions, each lesser than the last.

(MORE: Boehner: No End to Government Shutdown Without Concessions)

Weak as it is, Boehner’s bluff makes sense in a way. The Speaker comes into this negotiation with three interlocking goals. He wants, in no particular order, to prevent economic calamity; to keep his job; and to be seen as having won the standoff, or at least extracting a sufficient ransom that the GOP can plausibly claim victory. By holding the line until the latest possible moment, he may be able accomplish all three. It is possible to envision a negotiated settlement that gives Democrats the clean hike they’re insisting on, or perhaps with a small concession such as the repeal of Obamacare’s medical device tax, while also establishing a framework for a deficit-reduction package that Republicans can market as a win. The zero-sum showdown ends when both sides have something to spin.

Of course, Boehner isn’t the only one bluffing. Presiding over default would be an even uglier legacy for a president. It is an open question whether Obama could still refuse negotiations a week or more from now. But the White House’s gamble is what’s known in poker parlance a semi-bluff: one where you still have a chance to win if your opponent calls it. Polls indicate the public would hold Republicans responsible for the fallout. That would be the crudest of political victories. But the specter of a brand-busting outcome for the GOP is stark enough that Obama is staking his second term on forcing Boehner to fold.

The President used to play poker with Republicans, back in his days as a state legislator in Springfield. If he was any good, he knows the way to turn the tables on the guy who’s been bullying you is to shove in all your chips, even with the slimmest advantage.

MORE: Without Negotiating, Obama and Boehner Eye Big Deal