Political Animal


July 13, 2011 10:05 AM Boehner’s uncomfortable pause

By Steve Benen

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sat down with Fox News’ Bret Baier yesterday to discuss, of course, the debt-ceiling crisis Republicans have created. There were a couple of noteworthy exchanges.

First, the Fox News host asked the Speaker for a head-count assessment.

BAIER: Straight up or down. How many votes you think you can you lose on your side to get a debt ceiling increase raised?

BOEHNER: It really depends on how the packages put together and how much members know about it. There’s no way you could make that prediction on any given set of assumptions at this point.

BAIER: You lost 59 in the continuing resolution. It seems like there’s more than that number opposed to it now.

BOEHNER: I would agree with that statement. There are a lot of members who just don’t believe that raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances.

This is one of the more important things Boehner has said all week. There are at least 60 House Republicans, and very likely more, who want to see the United States default. The significance of this goes beyond just head-shaking disgust at the extremism of today’s Republican Party, there’s also a practical angle — there are 240 Republican members of the House, and it takes a minimum of 218 votes to pass a bill.

Boehner surely knows, then, that any resolution to this matter will require a significant number of House Democrats. The Speaker doesn’t have to like it, but the arithmetic doesn’t lie.

Second, take a moment to watch this exchange, and pay particular attention to the length of the pause and the look on Boehner’s face.

Baier asked the Speaker what happens if there’s no deal Congress chooses not to raise the debt ceiling. Boehner just sat there for a few seconds, unsure what to say. Eventually, he shook his head and conceded, “I don’t know.”

The Speaker probably didn’t expect this process to unfold this way. He’s helped take the hostage, threatened to shoot the hostage, and assumed Democrats would pay the ransom.

But Dems want to compromise and Boehner’s caucus doesn’t. The Speaker doesn’t really want to shoot the hostage, but he neglected to craft a backup plan.

And now he just doesn’t know what to do.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • BruceK on July 13, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Brings to mind the perhaps-classic lines in fictional hostage negotiations: "You've got to give me something to work with here." "Give us something to show good faith."

    The hostage-takers, here, have out-and-out said that they can't guarantee that the hostage won't be shot at the end just out of pure spite.

  • kevo on July 13, 2011 10:12 AM:

    He's helped to take the hostage, threatened to shoot the hostage, and hoped the Democrats would pay the ransom.

    -there, fixed! -Kevo

  • gf120581 on July 13, 2011 10:15 AM:

    I may be going out on a limb here, but I'm making a prediction; the Drunk Weepy Ooompa-Loompa will not be Speaker much longer. No matter how this ends up, he's going to face a revolt before too long and we'll have Cantor as Speaker. It was only a matter of time, given Cantor's been eager to stick the knife in Boner's back for a long while.

    And again, have we seen a Speaker as weak and pathetic as Boner? Not even Hastert was like this (if only because for most of his tenure he had DeLay behind him). Compared to the iron grip Pelosi rules her caucus by, it's a huge embarassment. Boner has NO control over his caucus. None.

  • Anonymous on July 13, 2011 10:19 AM:

    The problem with extortion is that the ordinary process of negotiation has already been poisoned. You can't count on the continuing cooperation of the people you would victimize. And you can't up the ante because your initial position is already too extreme. As horrifying and nihilistic as today's Republican Party has become, it ultimately couldn't pull the trigger without burning down its own house.

    Bravado and brinksmanship are fun when you're knocking nerf balls out of the ballpark on Fox News. It's less fun when you're on the street and people notice you're sweating underneath your pancake make-up.

  • c u n d gulag on July 13, 2011 10:19 AM:

    "And now he just doesn’t know what to do."


    I thought for a second that he might.

    This is what happens when all you care about is the politics that can help you win, but don't know a thing about governance when you win.

    The Republicans won the House, and, instead of trying to create jobs, decided to hold the country hostage as a political manuever to help in 2012.

    Too bad for them that Obama out-thunk 'em, and now, they're standing their like Daffy Duck, with powder burns on his face, and his beak around his shoes, after screaming "SHOOT ME NOW!!!" at Elmer, and Elmer lets him have it with both barrels.

    It couldn't happen to a "nicer" bunch of vermin...

  • Schtick on July 13, 2011 10:28 AM:

    Let's see, NY 26, WI, and CA. Hrm. Repubs may have to do a little reassessing here. Maybe we might get a few real representatives in office and with people finally starting to see what Murdock is really doing we might even get real journalism with facts back in our media.
    Nah. Too much to hope for all at once. The effects of the koolaid or maybe its the tea, take quite a while to wear off it seems. Right, Bonehead?

    crapcha....sorece adamr....???who???

  • Grumpy on July 13, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Boehner surely knows, then, that any resolution to this matter will require a significant number of House Democrats.

    Boehner has made a deliberate choice to govern without Democratic votes. This decision, rather than the inherent sway of the Tea Party, is what's crippled Congress's ability to govern.

  • Josef K on July 13, 2011 10:47 AM:

    The consequences of that "uncomfortable pause" on Boehner's part may be far more than just further embarrassment for the Speaker.

    Intended or not, he may well have just signalled to market watchers that he can't deliver a deal to raise the debt ceiling, in which case expect bond trading to go haywire sometime soon.

    On top of that, Cantor and the Republican caucus (at least in the House) may well feel emboldened to dig their heels in and simply refuse to return to the negotiation table. I wouldn't put it past Cantor to pull something like another walkout.

    One can only hope that the President and Democratic leadership drop the whole 'deficit reduction' angle and start insisting on a clean bill. Public pressure is already growing for this to be done, and will likely get worse as yesterday's message (ie. no Social Security checks get printed) sinks in.

    I grant that outcome is unlikely as the Tea Party base of the GOP continues to misunderstand the stakes involved. And so long as the current GOP caucus fears getting primaired next year more than sending the economy off the rails, I don't see much reason to hope for any outcome that doesn't result in Wall Street melting down again.

  • rob on July 13, 2011 10:49 AM:

    I agree with all the comments. They are political hacks and vermin who threatened the country for short term political gains, that may not have even been in the offing if they succeeded, and Obama has out foxed them. Great. But, it seems before we hold the celebration we may want to consider that the f.... bus we are all riding along in here is headed for the f.... cliff. If they can't control enough votes to adopt some sort of 'apply brakes and put it in reverse' Bill in a week or so some extremely bad stuff will happen.

  • DRF on July 13, 2011 10:53 AM:

    I'm starting to find Steve Benen's posts more annoying than not. I'm as appalled as the next guy at the behavior of the House Republicans and, in particular, the freshman "tea partiers". However, it's really not helpful to consistently mischaracterize their position, or the position of any conservative or Republican members of Congress.

    I believe that it is absolutely incorrect to say that 60 or so members of the Republican caucus want to see the U.S. default. They don't want a default and don't believe that a default will happen. Some of them don't believe that we are actually at or near the debt ceiling; like climate change deniers, they deny the facts. Others believe that, by not increasing the debt ceiling, they are forcing the Administration to impose spending cuts in order to avoid default. In this latter regard, they appear to be correct; the Administration will have to reduce spending if the ceiling isn't raised.

    I am by no means making excuses for their behavior or position, which I think is dead wrong. But I don't think it's useful to assume evil intentions on the part of people where what's really going on is ignorance and ideological fervor.

  • Todd for VT House on July 13, 2011 10:54 AM:

    Grover Norquist must be giggling with glee. It's his ultimate dream of drowning the government in the bathtub.

  • prettyfoot58 on July 13, 2011 10:56 AM:

    he does not know what to do???

    how are telling his caucas the truth...and standing firm on what needs to be done...i just hope it is not too late

  • PTate in MN on July 13, 2011 11:06 AM:

    I have become confused about process. The HR has 435 members, 240 Republicans and what, ~155 Dems?

    Did I miss (I was travelling) that the Dems proposed a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling, and it was voted down? Surely there are 25% of Republican Congressmen who would, if such a bill were introduced now, break ranks and vote with Dems? This entire mess is a crisis of Republican making; it could be fixed in 10 minutes if some Republicans would simply do the right thing.

    But does the process to raise the debt ceiling require the majority to introduce and support it? The process is continually described as "Boehner needing Dem votes to pass the bill" but couldn't Dems introduce the bill and pass it with some Republican support?

  • Kathryn on July 13, 2011 11:22 AM:

    Isn't it past time for Wall Street to contact Tea Party freshmen with the news that money won't be flowing into their coffers to fend off even more radical attacks for their new congressional seats? Any way you slice it, many will go down to crazier loons who, if the trend continues, will lose to Democrats. May be too Pollyannaish I acknowledge and I do find Cantor a truly frightening replacement for Boehner.

    On a more pleasant note. Women's FIFA World Cup at 11:30 A.M.

  • Cranky Observer on July 13, 2011 11:22 AM:

    > Did I miss (I was travelling) that the
    > Dems proposed a clean bill to raise the
    > debt ceiling, and it was voted down?

    The minority party doesn't have the power to schedule bills for votes; the majority party controls the agenda. So the Democrats' "clean bill" was not voted down because it was never and will never be voted on.


  • steve duncan on July 13, 2011 11:22 AM:

    Republicans do have a backup plan. Proclaim loudly and long over every media source they can access that Obama and Democrats are at fault for all the damage that is about to occur. Between Fox, Limbaugh and a few dozen other TV, radio and inky page outlets their message will get out and resonate. The talking heads and scribes can be depended upon to spread the manure. Boehner knows you can fool (almost) all of the people some of the time. This is that time.

  • bdop4 on July 13, 2011 11:24 AM:

    I'm with PTate. The disgust quotient by the public has to be on overload.

    Forcefully state your case: at this point in time, there is NO debt crisis. Yes we have debt, but we still have a ton of global credit and the primary focus should be on repairing the economy and getting people BACK TO WORK.

    Cost savings should be implemented, but not at the expense of an economic recovery effort.

    When the economy turns around, there will be revenues to pay down the debt. But it makes no sense to destroy our infrastructure in order to save it.

  • Brenna on July 13, 2011 11:25 AM:

    Obama ought to insist on a clean bill. There's definitely enough sane republicans + dems to get it done.

    This is dead serious. Enough of the baby stuff. Rush Limbaugh and Fox may have to get involved and convince the republicans that defaulting on our debt is not an option.

    Boehner is toast and probably so is McConnell.

    The republican leaders are such fools. They created and nurtured this mess. They have no one to blame but themselves.

  • danimal on July 13, 2011 11:36 AM:

    @Brenna--"Rush Limbaugh and Fox may have to get involved and convince the republicans that defaulting on our debt is not an option."

    If we're waiting on Limbaugh to be reasonable and save the nation from catastrophe, we are truly and completely screwed. It won't happen. Not in a 1000 years.

  • Jon on July 13, 2011 11:36 AM:

    A clean bill is the obvious last resort. But the GOP has boxed itself in very badly by insisting that it would not accept a clean bill under any circumstances. They have left themselves no way out of their own box, and they know it.

    No doubt Obama will open a wee little door at some point for them to crawl out on their hands and knees and claim some sort of tattered victory that won't fool anyone. Boehner will lose the leadership to Cantor. Then work starts on the next budget, which will display even more insane maneuvers by an even less responsible House leadership even more desperate to take home some sort of victory to their voters in 2012.

  • PTate in Mn on July 13, 2011 12:08 PM:

    Cranky Observer"...the majority party controls the agenda. "

    Ah-ha (*lightbulb on*) so that's it! Thank you, that's what I wasn't clear on. That seems like another structural flaw. It's a shame, right now.

    C'mon, Boehner! Do the right thing.

  • CDW on July 13, 2011 12:22 PM:

    I almost feel sorry for Boehner. He seemed to be out of his element from the beginning. On the other hand, I will never feel sorry for mcconnell. He's the lowest of the low and has no one to blame but himself for the corner he's in at the moment.

  • rrk1 on July 13, 2011 12:30 PM:

    Clearly the threat of a default, and consequences, is in the far backseat to Cantor's ambition to become speaker, and Boner's endless attempts to bring down Obama while still carrying water for Wall Street.

    Before the 2010 mid-terms I, and everyone else, knew that the crazy caucus in Congress would grow, and now we are beginning to see just how large it has become. There are more than 60 lunatics in the House now, and chances are we will see their numbers increase next year as even crazier know-nothings will be elected when these idiots don't deliver total anarchy.

  • Brainz on July 13, 2011 12:40 PM:

    The bigger, or stranger, tell is the little twitch he gives after he says, "and so do my colleagues." I'm no expert on Paul Ekman's theory of microexpressions, but I think that might be a moment of insight into how he feels about working with Cantor.

    There's an explanation of microexpressions on Ekman's site at:


  • bardgal on July 13, 2011 2:29 PM:

    "The significance of this goes beyond just head-shaking disgust at the extremism of today’s Republican Party..."

    Yes. It shows just how willfully ignorant they are, and proves that people who abhor knowledge and education are dangerous.

    Any Congressperson who signs a LOYALTY pledge to a non-elected individual (Grover Norquist), over their sworn duty to protect and serve the US Constitution, and shirks their job and responsibility to said document which demands they ENFORCE THE 14th Amendment by raising the debt ceiling, should be removed from office immediately and tried for treason.

    DO YOUR JOBS YOU GOP COWARDS. Clean bill - Law state you MUST raise it.

  • Scott @ Engage America on July 13, 2011 3:09 PM:

    The deadline for government default is weeks away and we are still worried about games and political brinkmanship. Credit rating agencies are already warning about consequences if the debt limit is not raised. Moody's and others have already stated that lack of action could caused a downgrade in the US credit rating (http://bit.ly/mqfV3V). This would be dire, as downgrade in credit worthiness will increase interest rates, which will increase the cost of goods and services for all Americans.

  • Doug on July 13, 2011 10:00 PM:

    DRF @ 10:53 AM -
    To paraphrase Mr. Gump, although the original applies, too: "Evil is as evil does."
    Refusing to do something necessary can have results more dire and harmful than any deliberate plan to cause suffering. How can one tell the difference between evil intentions resulting in evil actions and deliberate stupidity resulting in evil actions? And does it really matter?
    Should these "politicians" ever be subjected to a court of law for their actions, perhaps then their motives may play a part, but at this point it doesn't matter if the members of the Teabagger caucus truly don't understand what they're doing or whether they gather every midnight in some dank cellar and drink cups of blood, while cackling evilly as they celebrate their plans to destroy the economy of this country, and probably the globe's, as well.
    "Your Honor, my client is very sorry that his inaction caused the country's economy to collapse, and he would like to plead Negligent Stupidity." THAT just ain't gonna fly...

  • bridgette on August 25, 2011 10:34 AM:

    Claro sois derechos. En esto algo es y es el pensamiento excelente. Es listo a apoyarle.