Advancing a Free Society

In Debt Ceiling Negotiations, Advantage Speaker Boehner

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Last Tuesday was a good day for Speaker Boehner.

It’s not just that 318 House members, including 82 Democrats, voted against a “clean” increase of the debt ceiling. It’s that Tuesday’s vote revealed that, over the previous six weeks, the momentum in the debt ceiling fight had favored the Republicans, that is, the motion among House members is toward a deal with more debt reduction. Even better for Boehner, this shift isn’t confined to the Republican caucus. It is happening among moderate Democrats, who will be most helpful to the Republicans in striking a deal that can get through the Senate while maximizing spending cuts.

Here’s what I see in the roll call vote and three reasons why that’s good news for Speaker Boehner.

Behind the Curtain at the “Clean” Debt Ceiling Theatre

The votes that tell us something about the momentum behind debt ceiling negotiations in the House came from the 111 regular voting members who signed the April 15th Welch letter in support of a “clean” debt ceiling increase. (114 House members signed the Welch letter. Three of them were members from D.C. and U.S. Territories). All these members had an incentive to stick with their initial position to avoid needing to explain away what opponents would call out as a “flip-flop,” even if they had changed their minds about backing conditions for a debt ceiling increase.

Despite this, 36 regular voting members who signed the Welch letter in mid-April voted against the “clean” debt ceiling increase a month-and-a-half later. Some of these defections from the Welch letter position were probably in response to Hoyer’s urging that Democrats vote against the “clean” debt ceiling increase (and with the Republicans) to avoid attacks during the upcoming campaign. But Hoyer’s call can’t be the whole story. The Welch letter signatories from the more liberal and more moderate wings of the Democratic caucus voted very differently. And here’s where I think we learn something about a momentum swing in Boehner’s favor.

Using a scale of liberal-conservative ideology that is widely used by political scientists (DW-NOMINATE; for more information, see, I grouped members into the liberal half (roughly) of the caucus and the more moderate half (roughly), using a score of -0.5 as the dividing point (The full scale runs from -1.0 to 1.0. In the 112th House, the most liberal Democrat has a score of -0.88 and the most conservative Democrat has a score of -0.1).

The 52 Welch letter signatories from the more liberal half of the caucus (DW-NOMINATE scores between -1.0 and -0.5) were very likely to stick with their Welch letter call for a “clean” debt limit increase. Only 9 of these members (17%) switched their position and voted against the “clean” debt limit increase.

Compare that to the votes of the 59 Welch letter signatories from the more moderate half of the caucus (DW-NOMINATE scores between -0.49 and -0.1). These more moderate members had a defection rate of nearly half (45%, or 27 of the 59 members voted against a “clean” increase to the debt ceiling).

This high rate of defection from the Welch letter among moderate Democrats suggests that over the last six weeks, we’ve seen a substantial increase in momentum toward debt reduction. More than two dozen moderate Democratic members who had previously staked out a public position for a “clean” increase are now on record as supporting some debt reduction in a debt ceiling increase package. I think I don’t go too far out on a limb to propose that these moderate members are feeling pressure from activists, voters, and potential challengers back in their districts.

This is good news for Speaker Boehner for three reasons.

1. This momentum makes it easier to build a winning coalition while reducing the amount of compromise on spending cuts that will be required.

On one hand, the debt ceiling policy and tax-and-spend preferences of these Democrats could matter very little to the content of the initial debt ceiling increase legislation passed by the House. The Republicans can simply pass a bill that 218 of their members, even their 218 most conservative members, are willing to support.

On the other hand, these moderate Democrats will undoubtedly matter a whole lot when it comes time to strike a deal with the Senate for a debt ceiling increase/debt reduction package to which both chambers can agree.

The package out of the Senate, which I expect will include less debt reduction (and more tax increases) than would an initial House package, will lose the support of the most conservative House Republicans. Depending on how much compromise the Senate tries to insist upon, Boehner might need more than a handful of Democrats to get the final bill through his chamber. If that is the case, signs that moderate Democrats are feeling pressure to reduce our long-term debt as a part of a debt limit increase would be welcome news to Boehner. (I’m assuming that these moderate Democrats will show a preference for spending cuts over tax increases toward debt reduction.) It gives him more Democrats to negotiate with while also giving him negotiating partners who are open to accepting deeper cuts than we would have expected mid-April when the Welch letter was sent. If the momentum continues in this direction, these moderate Democrats could be agreeable to even deeper cuts by the time the 11th-hour comes around.

2. Boehner might get some help from House Democrats in his negotiations with Harry Reid.

If moderate House Democrats are feeling pressured to flash fiscal responsibility credentials on the ‘12 campaign trail, they could be willing to lean on the Democratic leadership in the Senate to agree to larger spending cuts.

3. Boehner can raise the debt ceiling while letting members from the conservative wing of his party cast protest votes.

Some Tea Party-backed House members will want to oppose any final deal as not sufficiently fiscally conservative (either because spending is “still profligate” or the deal includes tax increases, or both) because of conviction or perceived need to appeal to activists back in the district. If Boehner can get support from moderate Democrats, he can govern (increase the debt ceiling and make some progress on debt reduction) while protecting the electoral prospects of his far right rank-and-file by letting them register their objections with votes against the debt ceiling increase.

The upshot, as I see it today, is that if the Senate can agree to a debt ceiling increase with large-scale deficit reduction, Boehner has enough flexibility in building a coalition that he can get a deal through the House relatively readily. (And I stress “relatively” here. This is going to get ugly.)

But, at this point, I’m not confident the Senate can do that. More on that in my next post.