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Speaker Boehner’s Big Gamble

The Republican Speaker John A. Boehner, following the collapse of negotiations with President Obama, appears to be considering a path that would involve the House Republicans voting to raise the federal debt ceiling on their own terms, with little expectation of Democratic support.

It’s unclear what Mr. Boehner’s proposal, set to be unveiled on Monday, will entail. Some reports suggest that it might consist of a six-month increase in the debt limit, which would put the issue into play again in January or February just as the Iowa caucuses are taking place. But Mr. Boehner also hinted that his plans could include elements of the Republicans’ “cut, cap and balance” proposal, which was approved by the House last Tuesday but is stymied in the Senate.

If the House was able to approve any kind of increase to the debt limit, it would transfer focus to the White House and to the Senate. Mr. Obama has threatened to veto a short-term increase, but he would have little time left before the Treasury’s Aug. 2 deadline and perhaps little leverage. The Democratic-led Senate would probably be the bigger barrier: it could move to vote on its own proposal, leading to a potential standoff between the two chambers. Still, Mr. Boehner could put Democrats on the defensive, if not necessarily into checkmate.

Mr. Boehner, however, has a math problem. Republicans have 240 members in the House, and 217 votes are currently required to pass a bill. That means they could lose at most 23 votes, or about 10 percent of their caucus, assuming they picked up no Democratic support.

Mr. Boehner had previously indicated, however, that at least 59 Republicans would not vote to raise the debt limit under any circumstances, a number that appears to coincide with the 60 Republicans who are members of the Tea Party Caucus.

It is telling, perhaps, that the “cut, cap and balance” bill, although winning the support of all but 11 Republicans, did not raise the debt ceiling. Instead, it erected another barrier to it, requiring that a balanced budget amendment be approved by two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress before additional borrowing authority was given to the Treasury.

In addition to Republicans who might defect for ideological reasons, some others might do so for electoral ones. Polling on the debt limit, which at earlier points had appeared to show a clear plurality of Americans against any increase, has now become highly ambiguous, with widely varying results depending on question wording. But both the debt limit increase and the spending cuts attached to it are likely to inspire mixed feelings in voters, and the roughly 75 Republicans serving in swing districts would need to consider the contours of the proposal carefully.

Thus, the sharp rhetoric in the Republican conference call Sunday, in which Mr. Boehner and other Republican leaders took a number of swipes at Mr. Obama while also urging their members to unite behind the proposal. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority whip, reportedly told his colleagues that Mr. Obama was “throwing a fit because he’s worried about the election.” The idea seems to be that, if the most conservative Republicans aren’t swayed by pressure from Wall Street, or from the potential effects to the economy, perhaps the only thing that can move them is the potential to force Mr. Obama to concede defeat.

But if the vote on Mr. Boehner’s proposal fails, the risks to him are clear. It would presumably rattle markets, while making him look ineffectual. Most importantly, it would demonstrate that Republicans could not pass a bill, even through the House, without Democratic support, which would substantially reduce their leverage, as Mr. Boehner explicitly acknowledged in the conference call.

Then again, even if the Republican bill failed in the House, the counterproposal by Democratic leaders in the Senate would reportedly focus solely on spending cuts with no tax increases. Although some of the savings the Senate bill might claim to achieve would reflect an accounting treatment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that seems as much like a victory for Republicans as a defeat.

Meanwhile, although calling Mr. Obama’s bluff on his stated refusal to accept a short-term increase might qualify as a tactical victory for Republicans, its longer-term implications are ambiguous. Polls show that the public has a lukewarm view, at best, of how Mr. Obama has handled the negotiations. But the ratings for Republicans are much worse, calling into question whether they would benefit from another round of negotiations next winter under the heat lamp of the presidential primaries. There are increasing suggestions in the polling that the public could tell both Mr. Obama and the Republican Congress to find a new line of work.

Thus the real gamble that Mr. Boehner is taking: in seeking to trip up Mr. Obama, he may be putting his own majority at risk.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.