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The Debt Ceiling Impasse and the Meanings of "Compromise"

The Debt Ceiling Impasse and the Meanings of "Compromise"

By Carl M. Cannon - July 28, 2011

As Washington mired itself in partisan stalemate and the United States careened toward financial default, President Obama did House Speaker John Boehner a big favor -- two favors, really. They were both rhetorical in nature, which is no surprise, for even Obama's staunchest critics concede his skill as a communicator.

First, in his prime-time speech Monday night touting the Senate Democrats' debt ceiling-raising approach over the version proposed by Boehner and the GOP House leadership, the president lamented that in American politics "compromise has become a dirty word." Second, the White House issued a nebulous veto threat the following day in which senior White House aides seemingly quoted themselves as saying they'd recommend a veto of the House Republicans' debt ceiling plan.

This neat little two-step may have given the speaker just what he needed: On the one hand, it reminded the rational members among Boehner's Republican caucus that the most likely alternative to compromising is a credit default that could wreck the U.S. economy -- and the Republican Party brand along with it. On the other hand, if Democratic liberals -- including those on the White House staff -- dislike this plan so much they want Obama to veto it, well then, the most conservative members in the House s told one another Wednesday, perhaps it's better than it seems.

"The president said he's going to veto it, so we know that he doesn't like it that much," explained Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, one of those freshmen Republicans who had hoped for more. "So do we want to stand with the president, or do we stand with the speaker of the House? If those are my two choices right now, I'm going to stand with the speaker."

A House vote scheduled Thursday will tell for sure, but such a realization may have come just in time for the House leadership. For a while this week, the oomph seemed to dissipate out of John Boehner's speakership.

This week's drama began Monday night, when the president lauded the speaker for trying to be responsible, while suggesting to the entire world that Boehner wasn't able to control the impulses of the tax-cutting purists in his own party. The speaker followed with his own nationally televised address in which he looked about as cheerful as an undertaker imparting unpleasant financial information to a bereaved family. As if on cue, the following day the Congressional Budget Office revealed that its analysis of Boehner's plan - said to trim $1.2 trillion in federal spending over the next decade -- would actually realize savings of only $850 billion.

Armed with that information leaf, an array of conservative groups -- ranging from the fringe outfit Tea Party Nation to the policy wing of the establishment's Heritage Foundation -- called on Republican House members to reject the plan produced by their own party's leadership. By midday, Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio congressman who heads something called the Republican Study Committee, was predicting chirpily that it would fail.

It also turned out that congressional aides who report to Jordan had been ginning up opposition to Boehner's plan -- and to Republican House members who supported it. This didn't sit very well with those Republicans -- some of whom are dues-paying members of the Republican Study Committee themselves -- and they let Jordan know of their displeasure at a raucous, closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon. The bigger issue, however, was what Jordan and his confederates were offering as an alternative. Jordan and his dwindling band of absolutists stressed that the "cap, cut and balance" plan passed by the House already was the one that would actually reduce spending -- and the only one guaranteed to calm the financial markets.

They may well be right about that, but "cap, cut and balance" was already rejected by the Senate, and Jordan and his crew never quite got around to explaining what they wanted to happen next. But Democrats on Capitol Hill had a pretty good idea: Their plan -- a Senate proposal produced by Majority Leader Harry Reid -- would be the last debt-ceiling measure standing, and it would most likely go to the president's desk.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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