John Boehner’s Bad Night Clears a Path for a Deal

House GOP pulls vote on debt bill, leaving Senate to probe a path forward

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

In another era, for a different leader, it would have been a stunning rebuke. For John Boehner, it was just another embarrassing stumble in a speakership studded with them.

House Republican leaders canceled a planned Tuesday-night vote on a Boehner-backed proposal to resolve the debt and budget crises hanging over the U.S., but the dramatic news was met with shrugs and snorts. Facing a critical test, having brought the nation to the brink of default, the nation’s top Republican failed to rustle up the votes once again — and the humiliation took nobody by surprise.

In fact there have been plenty of others, like the time the House Speaker couldn’t whip his caucus on the fiscal-cliff deal that fell apart last Christmas. Or the embarrassment of the scuttled Sandy-relief bill. Or the Violence Against Women Act vote. Or the farm bill. Time and again, Boehner has been stymied by his fractious backbenchers.

And yet, in the perverse ways of modern Washington, the Tuesday-night defeat may soon be marked in the history books as a step forward.

It was the latest expression of the Boehner doctrine, a playbook for governing the ungovernable. Stripped of earmarking grease, reluctant to rule by fiat, and with a conference that fears only its right flank, Boehner has long since realized he must be bloodied first before he can steer the country to safety. The process, ugly and messy and infuriating, ultimately works. The strategy of accommodation has repeatedly brought Congress to the brink of a dangerous deadline, but never truly over the cliff.

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Only once Boehner has placated his base can he step aside and allow Senate leaders to take over the work of governing. Within an hour of the news, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, resumed negotiations that had been held up for the House vote. Spokespeople for both men told reporters that the two leaders were optimistic that an agreement could be reached before the Oct. 17 debt-limit deadline.

This was the outcome President Barack Obama, who has sat across the table from Boehner, has come to expect. “There have been repeated situations where we have agreements, then he goes back, and it turns out that he can’t control his caucus,” Obama said Tuesday in an interview with ABC News. “So, the challenge here is, ‘Can you deliver on agreements that are made? Are you able to come up with sensible bipartisan compromises and deliver on them?’”

The harbingers of Tuesday’s rebuke were there from the start. In the morning, House Republican backbenchers trickled out of a closed-door conference meeting in the bowels of the Capitol with tepid reviews of the Boehner proposal. Almost as soon as the details had emerged, they were changing. When the markets closed, a ratings agency warned the brinkmanship put the nation’s credit rating at risk.

Late in the afternoon came the last nail in the coffin: Heritage Action for America, an archconservative group that holds outsize impact with the House Tea Party faction, issued a statement warning that it would “score” the vote, and urged members to oppose it. “The proposed deal will do nothing to stop Obamacare’s massive new entitlements from taking root,” the organization wrote. The subtext was a thinly veiled threat: a vote for the bill now would invite a primary next November.

By then, however, the bill was already “cooked,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “They tried all day to change to appease folks, but it never worked,” another told TIME.

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These sorts of failures have become so common that Washington leaders have baked time to accommodate them into the legislative calendar. With just three days left until Congress breached the Oct. 17 deadline, party leaders shrugged and squandered a crucial day so that Boehner could take one last shot at appeasing the House hard-line faction. “I think he had to give his folks one last chance to resist. That’s unfortunate because the time is ticking,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Once they’ve had that opportunity, then sanity will prevail.”

The markets, which twitched in doubt at every sign of a stalemate in 2011, haven’t batted an eye this time. The path forward, which looked murky for a moment on Tuesday afternoon, now looks clear: the Senate will cut a bipartisan deal, and Boehner will be forced to pass it with Democratic votes. He has said repeatedly that the U.S. will not and cannot default.

Painful as it is, the Boehner doctrine may be preferable to any alternative. For all its frustration, a White House that takes frequent potshots at Republicans has been relatively restrained in its criticism of his leadership. That’s because it knows the alternative would be worse.

Despite the aborted coup that momentarily threatened Boehner’s re-election as Speaker in January, House hard-liners have described the past few months as Boehner’s finest. And why not? He gives them every opportunity to take the stands they need to secure re-election, while ultimately cushioning them from the consequences of economic catastrophe. Moreover, there are few credible candidates waiting in the wings — the threat posed by the ambitious majority leader Eric Cantor, which hung over the 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations, has receded — and even fewer who would actually want the job.

Now the focus shifts back to the Senate, where Reid and McConnell are expected to work swiftly to hammer out a deal that the House will need to swallow. Not that they are happy about it. Surveying the wreckage, a top House GOP aide took stock of the defeat Tuesday night and declared, “This is a clusterf—.” But in some weird way, it might just work.

— With reporting by Alex Rogers

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