WASHINGTON – How often will President Barack Obama come to House Speaker John Boehner’s rescue even when Republican leaders aren’t willing to give much in return? And does the president want to preside over a split in his party?
These are among the questions raised by the dramatic budget battle that came close to breaching the deadline for a government shutdown.
It was a remarkable moment because something quite unexpected happened.
Progressives and many moderates were outraged over many parts of the bill, two in particular. One undercut the financial reforms of the Dodd-Frank law by loosening its restrictions on the ability of banks to use taxpayer-insured funds from depositors for some potentially risky transactions involving derivatives.
Former Rep. Barney Frank, one of the architects of the 2010 law, warned that tossing such a provision into a must-pass bill would provide “a road map for the stealth unwinding of financial reform.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called it “the worst of government for the rich and powerful.”
The other tore apart campaign finance laws by allowing big donors to contribute up to $1,555,200 to a political party committee over a two-year election cycle, and a couple to give up to $3,110,400. This empowers only the wealthiest among us.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., nicely captured the government-for-sale message sent by the two components. “You’ve got the quid and the quo in one bill,” he said.
Typically, Democrats are more anxious to avoid government shutdowns and thus give a lot of ground to Republicans in budget fights. But negotiating in this way rewards those who use shutdown threats as a form of hostage-taking. If the reasonable side regularly makes concessions to unreason, the extremists win.
This time, Boehner was operating from a position of weakness because he could not pass the bill with Republican votes alone. His tea party members wanted to pick a fight with the president over his executive order on immigration, while Boehner wanted to kick that battle down the road. On the final roll call late Thursday night, Boehner lost 67 members of his own party.
The banking and campaign finance issues set off a rebellion among House Democrats that nearly scuttled the bill.
Yet before they had any chance of seeing if they could use their newfound leverage to improve the measure, the White House issued a statement calling for its passage. It criticized the provisions in question. But the administration felt this was a better deal than it could get in the next Congress and went to work rounding up up Democratic votes for Boehner.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, one of Obama’s most loyal allies, expressed her unhappiness over this oh-so-eager Boehner rescue operation. “I’m enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with this,” she said on the House floor.
In the end, it passed 219-206. Democrats split 57 in favor, 139 against.
There are several dynamics here that will prove important in the coming year. One is that Senate Democratic negotiators were out of sync with many of their House colleagues. The campaign finance and derivatives sections came out of the Senate, and the potential for further splits between Democrats in the two houses is substantial.
Moreover, Obama will not always be able to count on the Senate to block Republican bills he objects to. To sustain his vetoes, he will depend on House loyalists, the very people the administration’s performance disappointed this time.
Pelosi played down the problems in an interview on Friday and said the differences with the White House were largely over short-term tactics. She said that the resistance of so many Democrats sent a signal to Boehner that there are limits on what she and her colleagues will accept, particularly when it comes to undercutting financial reform.
It’s true that Boehner will reflect on this close call and Senate Democratic leaders, facing minority status, may have learned that they will have to take their House colleagues and their own progressive wing more seriously.
But this should also be a wake-up call for the president who, in his last two years, needs to be far more attentive to how he deals with Congress, and especially with his allies.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.