Republican climbdown over debt deal reveals party turmoil

Boehner fails to unite Tea Party wing and moderates to block Bill’s passage

Democrats ridiculed John Boehner for his inability to muster just 18 votes among his members  Photograph: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg.

Democrats ridiculed John Boehner for his inability to muster just 18 votes among his members Photograph: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg.


There was a strange moment when Republican speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner ended a press conference on Monday evening. After fielding questions about why his party had caved in on an increase to the US government’s borrowing limit, ending three years of fiscal battles – at least until March 2015 – he broke into song.

Walking away from a podium, Boehner crooned “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” the song from the Disney animated movie Song of the South . “My, oh my, what a wonderful day,” he sang, prompting laughter from reporters. “Plenty of sunshine coming my way.”

Boehner’s sunny disposition cheered up the Capitol press corps as Washington DC prepared for another freezing winter storm. The irony of Boehner’s impromptu performance was lost on no one.

Used by Republicans since early 2011 as leverage to extract concessions from President Obama and Democrats in Congress, the debt limit increase passed narrowly by 221 votes to 201 with 28 Republicans joining nearly all House Democrats to pass the measure in the lower chamber.

The capitulation says more about Boehner’s leadership and inability to quell internal ructions within a Republican Party riven by tensions between the more traditional conservative members and the obstructionist hard-right Tea Party faction than anything to do with America’s precarious fiscal health.

Democrats ridiculed Boehner for his inability to muster just 18 votes among his members to block what used to be routine approval to raise the limit – this time to $17.2 trillion (€12.7 trillion) of debt that the government has committed to repay. The president and Harry Reid, leader of the Democrat-controlled Senate, have said they will sign the debt ceiling increase into law, which would make this the sixth debt ceiling increase of the Obama presidency and the 43rd since 1980.

Republican leaders in the House, which they control, were unable to unite moderate conservatives or hard-right Tea Partiers on a strategy of conditions they could apply as leverage to a debt increase Bill – as they had with a budget Bill in the autumn that led to the 16-day government shutdown.

Rank-and-file Republicans were concerned about any strategy that would tie a hike in the debt ceiling to a reverse in a recently passed cut in military pensions. Several House Republicans heading out on the election trail hoping to wrestle marginal Senate seats from Democrats were fearful of how conditions might play out with voters ahead of the November midterm congressional ballot.

After winning more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in a 2011 showdown and modest concessions on two agreed debt limit increases last year, Republicans could not agree to similar add-ons this time. Boehner pushed a no-strings-attached Bill into the House and, as a result, the US is expected to be able to continue to raise debt when its borrowing capacity is exhausted on February 27th.

Wounded party
The Bill, passed by the Senate with 55 to 43 votes, will keep the threat of default at bay until at least March 2015.

The Republican climbdown is not surprising. The party is still licking its wounds following the unpopular government shutdown four months ago. Obama’s disapproval ratings may be running at about the 50 per cent mark but disapproval with Republicans is even higher, at about 80 per cent.

Boehner had hoped that a debate around the debt ceiling would be the last skirmish with Democrats before the elections to decide which party controls the House and Senate, but conscious of their unpopularity, Republican leaders did not want to inflict further damage on the party before going to voters, particularly when a conditional debt increase Bill was never going to pass the Senate.

Divisive proposals
“The leadership has come to the conclusion that we can’t get anything done until we change the Senate,” said Matt Salmon, a conservative Republican congressman from Arizona.

“I think if we have a different Senate that at least lets the debate go forward and puts it on Obama’s desk.”

Defeat on the debt ceiling also confirms that other divisive proposals such as immigration reform, a major issue for thousands of illegal Irish immigrants and future emigration flow from Ireland, are unlikely to be entertained by Republicans ahead of the elections.

“Everything is satisfactual,” goes a later lyric from Boehner’s favoured song. After running up the white flag on the debt ceiling this week to avoid another party revolt and a further bashing in the polls, very little is satisfactual for Republicans on Capitol Hill right now.