The tenor of a lot of today’s coverage of the debt ceiling standoff is a little odd. The closeness to the deadline certainly warrants an atmosphere of tension, but a lot of news outlets are treating the collapse of House Republican efforts to cobble together 218 votes for some kind of plan as further bad news.
But nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of constitutional law, no deal can get done unless it is acceptable to Barack Obama. And Obama has a nearly unified Democratic Party behind him in congress. That Democratic Party holds a majority of Senate seats and a large minority of House seats. In other words, to fly, a deal needs Obama. And any deal that has Obama will have lots of Democratic votes. So the name of the game is to devise an approach that’s acceptable to Obama and can get some Republican votes.
Yesterday, John Boehner was playing a completely different game. His game was trying to devise a plan that was acceptable to nearly all Republicans and thus could pass the House despite having zero Democratic support. That was an important game for Boehner personally and for the internal politics of the House GOP caucus. But nothing that’s acceptable to the 30–100 most conservative House members will be acceptable to the White House. A deal that’s unacceptable to the White House can’t become law, and a deal that is acceptable to the White House doesn’t need the 30–100 most conservative House members. Yesterday’s whole hunt for House votes and a “House plan” was pure kabuki.
Today we’re exactly where we’ve been for weeks. If Republicans are willing to divide their caucus, there are ways out of the hole they’ve dug. If they aren’t, they aren’t. Yesterday’s collapse of GOP-only dealmaking makes it more likely that they’ll be willing to divide their caucus, and a divided caucus is the only way out. This isn’t dispositive, but I do think it’s telling that financial markets remain calm. Playing this drama out until the eleventh hour has been damaging, but that’s priced in. The expectation is still that this will end, and the pieces are in place for that to happen.