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Did the Tea Party Just Inadvertently Give Boehner an Opening?

Does an extremely tough position by official Tea Party groups on the debt ceiling herald the end of John Boehner’s attempts to pass legislation on the issue, or does it paradoxically breathe new life into the negotiations?

Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots–the nation’s largest Tea Party group–was interviewed by the Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy, who asked him whether Tea Party chapters would organize primary challenges to House Republicans who followed Boehner’s lead and struck a deal on raising the debt ceiling. Here was Meckler’s response:

It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen. But I can tell you that there are certainly a lot of thoughts out in the Tea Party network across the country about primary-ing people, including freshmen who seem to be going off the rails so early.

Just what constitutes “going off the rails” and therefore earning a primary challenge? “Folks who vote for a debt ceiling increase are going off the rails,” Meckler responded.

That at least won’t happen today. As the Washington Post reports, the Congressional Budget Office may have guaranteed the “no” votes of many already-skeptical Republicans when it said Boehner’s bill would cut $850 billion over the next decade, not the $1.2 trillion he initially claimed:

The news from the CBO alarmed conservatives, who were already balking at what they considered timid spending reductions. It also meant Boehner’s bill would not meet his own demand that the cuts exceed the size of the $900 billion debt-limit increase.

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait wrote that because President Obama is, well, the president, he can get the Democrats to make almost any deal he wants, but Boehner has conservative House Republicans to answer to, and it puts him in a box. “This constraint on his maneuvering ability gives him a huge advantage in the game of chicken against Obama. In other ways, though, it dramatically inhibits him,” Chait wrote.

This is because of what Sarah Binder classifies as “single minded seekers of re-nomination,” an update on David Mayhew’s description of members of Congress as “single-minded seekers of re-election.” In safe districts, which many of the congressional districts on both sides of the aisle are, re-election is not the concern; an effective primary challenge is. This is what Meckler is referring to as well.

But it’s possible Meckler may have overplayed his hand on this one, and unintentionally freed up some House Republicans to compromise. If Republicans will be “primaried” for simply voting for an increase in the debt limit under any circumstances, the details of Boehner’s plan become less important. It takes Boehner out of that box, because the GOP will be divided along different lines. Had Meckler said, “Folks who vote to raise the debt limit without serious structural reforms and at least $1.5 trillion in real savings are going off the rails,” then Boehner would have to negotiate with those who share Meckler’s view. But because Boehner will not consider not raising the debt limit at all, he in effect cannot negotiate with Meckler’s constituents.

Meckler, I think, may have just taken himself out of the game–or at least out of this game. This may not end up helping Boehner, because enough of the House GOP may still demand steeper cuts than Boehner can deliver. But he would be foolish not to play on Meckler’s terms and divide his caucus between those who want to raise the debt ceiling and those who don’t, and try his best to avoid the details.


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