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How Boehner’s Bill Has Hurt, and How It Could Help, Republicans

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is not all that much difference between the proposals put forth earlier this week by the speaker of the House, John A. Boehner, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. Both came up with roughly the same amount in deficit reduction (accounting tricks notwithstanding). Both set up bipartisan commissions to achieve more. Neither raised taxes, but both raised the debt ceiling. But Mr. Boehner’s bill did so for six months, while Mr. Reid’s did so through the end of 2012.

This is obviously not a trivial point of difference. But, considering the extremely wide range of proposals floated at various stages of the negotiations, it seemed like a manageable gap. Perhaps, on a 100-point scale where 0 represents a total victory for Democrats (say a debt ceiling increase with no strings attached) and 100 represents a total victory for Republicans (perhaps the passage of “cut, cap and balance”), Mr. Boehner’s original bill would be scored at about a 70 and Mr. Reid’s at a 50.

It was at least possible to imagine Democrats’ signing off on Mr. Boehner’s bill as written. They wouldn’t have liked it. A compromise would have been more likely. But if the contingencies of the endgame had proceeded in such a way that it truly seemed like Mr. Boehner’s bill was the last train out of the station, they might have preferred it to nothing.

Likewise, it was at least possible to imagine Republicans’ signing off on Mr. Reid’s bill as written if it were the only option remaining. It achieved their goals of avoiding tax increases and matching the amount of additional borrowing authority with revenue cuts. Certainly, it accomplishes the second in a dubious way, by counting in part on savings from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (although Republicans have used the same trick in the past). But there was also plenty of red meat there — discretionary spending cuts as steep as Mr. Boehner’s bill, as well as the new fiscal commission.

The remaining debate was mostly about two things: where we ended up on that spectrum from 50 to 70 points, and whether either or both parties were able to save face after a process that has taken has a toll on both.

If Mr. Boehner’s original bill had passed, it would have shifted the probabilities closer to the 70-point end of the scale, a relatively more favorable outcome for Republicans. The House would have been the first chamber to pass a plausible compromise. With time running short, that would have provided them with additional leverage, and some chance that their bill was adopted outright.

But Mr. Boehner’s original bill did not have the votes, and the new version that the House passed Friday evening does not achieve the same objective. Although it raises the debt ceiling in the near-term, it makes it much more difficult to do so in the longer term since the second tranche of borrowing authority would require a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers of Congress to approve a balanced budget amendment.

Making the debt limit increase dependent on the balanced budget amendment is a fundamental change and puts the bill well outside the range of options that Democrats would normally consider. Moreover, since the revised bill makes raising the debt limit through the end of 2012 more cumbersome on balance, Mr. Obama could have made a credible threat to veto it if it had somehow  passed the Senate — there’s little purpose in averting a debt crisis now only to invite another one in six months.

So that’s the price that Mr. Boehner and the Republicans are likely to pay. They’ll very probably lose the argument that a short-term rather than a longer-term increase is acceptable, both because their bill no longer represents a plausible compromise and because the past few days have served to demonstrate to the public, the markets and Congress that going through this exercise again in the winter would be extremely dangerous. But Mr. Reid’s bill is hardly a terrible outcome for them, and they will probably win at least a few additional concessions out of Democrats over the weekend.

Mr. Boehner’s new bill also provides him with the opportunity to save some face. Perhaps it doesn’t make up for his humbling on Thursday. But a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, neither Democrats nor Republicans really want to have a discredited speaker of the House at  precisely the moment when his cooperation will be necessary to avoid a debt crisis. Letting Mr. Boehner regain some of his footing may be in their mutual interest in the short term.

Second, although I don’t want to make it seem like the past few days have been good for Mr. Boehner, I’m not sure that they’ve been quite as bad as advertised. Mr. Boenher needed 90 percent of the Republican caucus to vote for his bill. Depending on which whip count you look at, he had gotten to somewhere between 75 percent and 89 percent as of Thursday night. That’s a considerable accomplishment given that Jim Jordan, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (which represents more than 70 percent of House Republicans) had voiced his vociferous opposition to the bill, as had many outside groups. (Last year, when Nancy Pelosi got Democrats to approve their health care bill – something that is widely regarded as a remarkable exercise in vote-whipping  — she did so with the support of around 85 percent of her members, about the threshold that Mr. Boehner seemed to top out at.)

The most complicated question may be what this will do to the relationship between the Republican establishment and insurgent groups like the Tea Party. Last night was a point of evidence that the Tea Party has enough direct influence on the Republican Congress to have a de facto veto over its agenda. That is to say, even in the House, the Republican majority is not large enough to pass bills without either the Tea Party’s support, or the Democratic Party’s support.

On the other hand, the Tea Party has been repudiated by everyone from John McCain to The Wall Street Journal to Ann Coulter — hardly a bunch of RINOs. And the two most likely outcomes are now a bill that looks something like Mr. Reid’s — or no agreement at all. Neither of those will make the Tea Party’s strategy look good, and it may find its influence limited in future debates.

The schism between establishment conservatives and antiestablishment conservatives was going to reveal itself at some point – for instance, during the Republican presidential nominating process. It may be a bad thing for Republicans that it happened sooner rather than later, and that conventional wisdom within the party is shifting to the view that the Tea Party is a liability. Better a little pain for Mr. Boehner now – and a slightly worse policy outcome for Republicans – than they throw away a golden opportunity to defeat Mr. Obama.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.