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Boehner’s No Good, Very Bad Day—And Its Consequences

[Guest post by Norman Ornstein:]

John Boehner had a very bad day Wednesday. First, the Congressional Budget Office eviscerated his debt limit plan, forcing him to scramble to come up with another $350 billion in discretionary budget cuts, which in turn means that Boehner will have to bring up his revised plan late—but also with less than the three days notice he pledged to allow for every significant piece of legislation brought before the House. Second, he is in full panic mode to come up with the 217 votes (not 218, because of vacancies) necessary to pass his plan through the House, facing a daunting arithmetical challenge: 59 of his 240 House Republicans have pledged themselves not to vote for a debt limit increase. He can aim for less than a handful of Democrats to counter defections.

So Boehner and his leadership team are pulling out all the stops, putting his full prestige on the line, to get members to renege on their ironclad pledges. Every speaker has these moments when getting to a bare majority is excruciatingly difficult, and it requires offering inducements or simple begging. But a speaker can only go to the well once or twice to get his or her members to walk the plank. In this case, Boehner’s tactical maneuvers mean that he is asking two dozen or more of his colleagues to walk that plank in return for something that has no chance of becoming law. Instead, it is a vote to give him the barest amount of additional traction to cut a deal for a plan that will dilute even further the package that they are on record condemning for its weakness. Many of the reluctants will not be willing to walk the plank a second time for the compromise. So Boehner will face another crossroads—will he be willing to bring up and push for a plan that will require almost as many Democrats as Republicans, to make up for the defections in his own ranks?

If Boehner wins the vote, it will be by the barest of margins, not exactly providing momentum for his position. If he loses, it increases the chances of a compromise that takes a few elements from his plan and many from Harry Reid’s. But a much weaker Boehner, having lost a big one in the House, will need even more Democrats than Republicans to push it through. The consequence if that fails? Awful for him now, not to mention his place in history. But far worse for the country.