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Boehner Has a Plan. Or Something Like That.

Win McNamee/Getty

House Republican leaders on Thursday morning announced that they have a new proposal and it hews to the outlines media outlets reported overnight. Basically, House Republicans would leave the government shut down but give it about six weeks' worth of borrowing authority. Assuming I understand what the Republicans have in mind, the idea would be to use that time for some kind of broader negotiation on fiscal policy, entitlements, etc.—and, somewhere along the way, to start funding normal government operations again.

The announcement came hours before leaders were to meet with President Obama at the White House. In a press conference, House Speaker John Boehner said “I would hope that the president will look at this as an opportunity and a good-faith effort on our part to move halfway—halfway to what he’s demanded—in order to have these conversations begin.”

Well, Obama might look at this as an opportunity. But he should be wary. On the one hand, Republican leaders seem finally to be reducing their demands. For one thing, leadership isn't really talking about Obamacare anymore. Boehner's legislation apparently won't say anything about the new health care law, at least according to media reports, and the topic didn't really come up last night during a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, according to one House aide briefed on the conversation. (In this account, the only exception was a quip from Hoyer, subsequently reported by Jake Sherman and Manu Raju in Politico.) Instead, Boehner used the conference to make the case for other Republican priorities, like entitlement cuts. And it sounds like such cuts are what he hopes new negotiations over fiscal policy might achieve. 

But it's not clear whether conservatives in the House are in agreement about this shift. As Jonathan Strong of National Review reports, many conservative Republicans say they are thinking about supporting Boehner's proposal only because they think it will let them focus more on Obamacare, not less. 

More generally, it's hard to judge Boehner's proposal without knowing more details. In particluar, will it actually stipulate that fiscal negotiations take place—and, if so, will it put restrictions on what the outcome of those talks can be? These are critical questions. While Obama and the Democrats have signaled that they would reluctantly accept a short-term increase in the debt ceiling—notwithstanding the political perils that my colleague Noam Scheiber recently identified—they have been adamant that legislation increasing the limit not come with strings attached. It's not clear whether the bill Boehner described would satisfy those criteria.

Meanwhile, Boehner’s suggestion that his proposal represents a “halfway” position is a reminder of the gap still separating the parties. Republicans think it is appropriate to demand major policy concessions in exchange for letting the government operate and pay its past bills. Obama and the Democrats think that’s a form of extortion: They are happy to negotiate over priorities and have already signaled they would accept, without modification, temporary spending levels that Republicans prefer. They'll even talk about modifying the health care law. But they won’t talk about any of these policy questions as long as Republicans have shut down the government and are threatening to allow default.

On this question, there is no halfway point. It's one or the other. And you know my feelings on the matter. Boehner's proposal may buy him some time. (If Jonathan Chait is right, avoiding immediate political pain is the totality of Boehner's strategic thinking right now.) But it won't solve this basic dilemma.