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The Humiliated, Bizarre Republican Party: What Happens Next

Yep, they really shut the government down. How does this mess end -- and will a debt limit showdown be even worse?

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I’ve never really bought that argument. Not because I think it’s “wrong” per se — I think there’s some logic to it, and I hope it’s right! But because I think it unnecessarily complicates things.

Specifically, it requires ignoring two immutable facts: first, that the votes exist in both the House and Senate to both fund the government and increase the debt limit without Obama yielding any concessions to the GOP; and second that for all his reluctance to cross the right, Boehner still controls the floor of the House of Representatives.

At the end of the day that means the questions of whether government shuts down (which it has) and whether the country’s borrowing authority lapses are separate ones, that only Boehner can answer. It’s all up to him. At least in this Congress.

And that’s where the differences between a government shutdown and a debt default become so crucial. When it comes to most issues, including a government shutdown, it makes some sense to think of Boehner as a helpless figurehead at the mercy of whichever bloc of Republicans happens to be threatening his speakership at the moment.

But when it comes to the debt limit, you have to remember that for all his shortcomings, Boehner is a powerful person with agency and a conscience. Human qualities tend to be poor indicators of legislative comings and goings, but in the coming debt limit fight it’s practically the only thing that matters.

Boehner’s conscience isn’t bothered by rattling the country, or by undermining economic confidence, or even by shutting down the government — something he just got boxed into doing by a minority of his own members knowing how bad it would be for the nation and for his party. That’s why I don’t expect him to increase the debt limit in an orderly or timely manner.

But actually flushing the full faith and credit of the United States down the toilet is a completely different thing. To assume that Boehner’s more or less on the hook for blowing through the debt limit based on how the government shutdown fight (or any fight) plays out is to make a categorical error. Or perhaps to believe that Boehner’s essentially outsourced his moral decision making to the 30-or-so Republicans who are threatening his speakership.

Nothing we’ve seen bears out that notion. If anything, he and other GOP leaders have made very clear over the past two years that they ultimately won’t allow the country to default on its debt. No matter what. Even if their political hides are on the line.

Which is all to say I don’t think it matters if the shutdown we’re experiencing now gets resolved in a day or a week or two weeks, and I don’t think it would’ve mattered if Boehner had waved the white flag at midnight and put the Senate’s spending bill on the House floor. If this shutdown makes it easier for him to increase the debt limit later this month, great! But just about everything that’s happened all year — including the way he winnowed down GOP demands in the shutdown fight just last night — suggests to me he would have done it anyhow.

The outcome of last night’s proceedings on Capitol Hill shouldn’t shake or bolster your faith that everything will work out OK. Whatever you once believed about the likelihood that Republicans would trigger a major credit event, nothing that happened yesterday should change it. Before last night I believed the threat of a noisy and destructive debt limit fight was very high, but that the threat of a genuine lapse in borrowing authority was pretty low. I still believe both of those things.

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