Boehner’s Next Stage of Grief: Grand Bargaining

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Photo: Photos: Warner Bros (Dark Knight), Getty Images (Boehner), Shutterstock(Uncle Sam)

At yesterday’s meeting in the White House, John Boehner floated a possible solution to the shutdown and debt ceiling hostage crisis: a Grand Bargain, according to Jake Sherman and Carrie Budoff Brown and Robert Costa, who adds that Boehner brought up the idea himself. Yes – the elusive Grand Bargain, like Bigfoot, has been spotted again.

The development is best understood as an expression of the House leadership’s heightening desperation. No more than a few dozen Republicans actually wanted to shut down the government — the rest merely feared the ire of the enflamed activist base. The shutdown does hurt the country, but at huge cost to the GOP’s national standing. The Republican threat to keep punching themselves in the face is not going to yield any concessions. Members of the House’s pragmatic wing are openly calling on Boehner to reopen the government; the number of House Republicans publicly endorsing a clean continuing resolution is enough that, if a vote were held, it would pass.

Yet the obvious untenability of the shutdown has not produced any sense of conciliation among the great mass of the House Republican caucus. To understand the thought process here, one must abandon conventional game theory and delve into elemental psychology. Representative Mark Meadows asserted yesterday, “This fight now has become about veterans, and about National Guard folks that perhaps — reservists that are not getting paid.” That these things have happened as a result of the GOP’s own decision is not the point. The fight has taken on a life of its own. One Republican tells Byron York," I think there's a sense that for us to do a clean CR now — then what the hell was this about?" Others say the same thing:

“This is not just about Obamacare anymore,” centrist Representative Michael Grimm, R.-N.Y., said.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” conservative Representative Marlin Stutzman, R.-Ind., added. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

So Boehner’s members are angrier than ever, yet trapped in a strategy that can’t work, the failures of which merely intensify their resolve not to surrender. At first, House leaders floated a plan to get through the shutdown debacle by extending it into the debt ceiling, which expires on October 17. But that merely worsened the dilemma. Conservatives expect a ransom from the shutdown, and can’t get it, and expect an even bigger ransom from the debt ceiling, which Democrats also refuse to negotiate.

The Grand Bargain is an escape route to mask the retreat by making everything bigger. A senior Republican aide described the plan, in a telling phrase, as a “way out of the cul-de-sac.” And the strategy has some logic behind it. Democrats refuse to negotiate a ransom for either reopening the government or lifting the debt ceiling, but they will negotiate the budget. If the two sides negotiate some kind of budget deal, they could fold a reopening of the government and a debt-ceiling hike into it.

What’s more, there are things Democrats could hand over. Republicans have seized on the tax on medical devices, which is one of the smaller funding sources in Obamacare and incidental to making the law work. Republicans could win that trophy and call it a “partial repeal” of the hated law. Obama has already offered up cuts to Social Security and Medicare conditional upon higher revenue.

Revenue is the key to the whole thing. Politico’s story quotes a handful of Republicans offering to cough up some revenue, and if they could deliver on that offer, then a big agreement would really be possible.

But here is where the political logic of the strategy collapses upon itself. Boehner has tried in the past to secure bargains like this with Democrats. Every time, Paul Ryan and other conservatives have undercut him. The leadership’s plan seems to be selling House conservatives on the goodies they can get while soft-pedalling the concessions. Pay close attention to this description, via Costa, of the leadership’s sales pitch to the members:

What’s not being discussed: increased taxes or revenues. From what I hear, this combined deal is being softly and informally sold to members; Wednesday’s talks were about gradually getting them engaged. And it’s all about what the GOP could win – there’s little about what they’ll give in return. That doesn’t mean, however, that revenue as part of a tax-reform pact has been ruled out.

The thing to keep in mind is that there is essentially zero institutional support within the conservative movement for negotiating a budget deal with Obama. Even the “pragmatic” conservatives who pleaded against the shutdown, like Grover Norquist and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, adamantly oppose closing any tax loopholes, regardless of what spending cuts come along with it.

So: What happens when the defunders realize the budget deal is not going to destroy Obamacare, and the anti-defunders realize it is going to include higher taxes? The answer is that John Boehner gets run out of town on a rail. There’s nothing a deal like that could include — not even a provision impeaching Obama and deporting him to Kenya — that could make it acceptable to the right-wing base.

The glimmer of possibility here is that perhaps Boehner is actually willing to go out in a blaze of glory. As the debt ceiling clock ticks down, he decides that, if he’s going to lose his speakership anyway, he might as well do something huge. The last-minute deal on October 17 would pass with a handful of Republicans, a majority of Democrats, and enraged conservatives chasing Boehner out of his office and on to a plush lobbying gig.

More likely — far more likely — is that conservatives get wind of this plan and quash it before Boehner can even negotiate the broad outlines. If rescuing the world economy from catastrophe actually depends upon a Grand Bargain passing the House, the world is in more desperate straits than anybody imagined.