JOHN BOEHNER’S speakership hasn’t provided much reason for optimism in Washington, with his feeble leadership on national immigration reform and repeated failure over the last three years to manage restive House Republicans. But Boehner’s actions over the last week provide at least a glimmer of hope that he — and therefore the House — might be turning a corner. Boehner, defying the most hard-right members of his party, allowed a vote on legislation raising the debt ceiling. The debt-ceiling legislation was simply common sense that never should have been at issue. But the political dynamics were nonetheless encouraging: Hopefully, his slight of the GOP’s Tea Party wing signals a higher level of assertiveness on Boehner’s part that will translate into action on immigration.
Politicizing the debt ceiling, the amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow, was wrong from the start — and Boehner seemed to know it. Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t create new spending; it merely allows the government to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. Inaction on the ceiling risked putting the United States into default, an unthinkable outcome. But again and again, Tea Party Republicans sought to use the threat of self-imposed disaster as leverage to extract concessions from President Obama. The strategy backfired on Republicans in the fall, and Boehner’s actions this week — he put the debt ceiling to the floor for a “clean” vote — sent a clear message: Enough. Hopefully, Boehner’s actions will end debt-ceiling gamesmanship for good.
Less clear, though, is whether this week’s dramatics will embolden Boehner on other issues. By bringing the debt-ceiling vote to the floor, Boehner violated the so-called “Hastert rule.” There is no actual Hastert rule, but Republicans have embraced the informal guideline, only allowing votes on bills that have the support of most GOP House members. It’s the same barrier that has stymied progress on immigration; if allowed a vote, reform would likely pass with support from Democrats and many Republicans.
Tea Party Republicans should take Boehner’s moves this week as a warning. It’s also possible, of course, that his actions will have the opposite effect; after defying the Tea Party over the debt ceiling, he may now feel he needs to make it up to them by continuing to block immigration reforms. But the country, millions of immigrants, and ultimately the GOP itself would be better off if Boehner continues down the path he stepped onto this week.