It was always going to come down to this question on the debt limit: Can Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) negotiate a compromise with President Barack Obama that wins the backing of the majority of his Conference while averting a fiscal disaster for the nation?
The decision of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to bail on the bipartisan talks last week has put the onus squarely on Boehner to negotiate a deal for the entire Republican Party, and he has little more than a month in which to do it.
But even as it seems that both Republicans and Democrats are boxing themselves in on what they will consider and what they won’t, there may be a few loopholes that Boehner and the president can exploit.
Still, Boehner’s choice will be between compromising to get Democratic votes and upsetting his base or keeping to a hard line that satisfies conservative firebrands but risks a potentially catastrophic default on the nation’s debt obligations.
If Democrats and Obama ultimately buckle on their demand that new revenues be part of any deal to raise the debt limit, Boehner could win big with spending cuts of up to $2.4 trillion.
But there’s no indication yet that Senate Democrats, House Democrats or the president are even close to blinking.
“The president is willing to make tough choices, but he cannot ask the middle class and seniors to bear all the burden for deficit reduction and to sacrifice, while millionaires and billionaires and special interests ... are let off the hook,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday.
If there’s no deal and the nation plunges into a fiscal crisis, the political risks for both sides are obvious.
And if Boehner negotiates a true compromise that eliminates some special interest tax breaks — such as those for ethanol — he will face a backlash from the likes of Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, which has persuaded most Republicans to sign a strict anti-tax pledge. It’s not clear whether Boehner could sell such a deal to the party’s conservative base, several House Republicans and aides said.
Boehner issued a statement Friday setting out markers for getting a deal to raise the debt limit.
“The president and his party may want a debt limit increase that includes tax hikes, but such a proposal cannot pass the House,” Boehner said.
He also reiterated that any cut in spending must exceed any increase in the debt limit and that future spending must be restricted.
“These are the realities of the situation. If the president and his allies want the debt limit increased, it is only going to happen via a measure that meets these tests,” Boehner said. “If the president puts forth such a proposal, he has my word that the House will act on it. But a measure that fails to meet these tests cannot pass the House.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.