When push came to shove, and Congress had to approve legislation to avert the fiscal cliff, House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t rely on his conference to provide the necessary votes. The final agreement—crafted by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden—passed the House with just 85 Republican votes. The remaining 172 came from Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, for a final count of 257 to 167.
To avert economic disaster Boehner had to seek votes from a overall majority of the House, rather than just a majority of his caucus. Which has raised an important question: Would Boehner try to build majorities with pragmatic Republicans and Democrats, or would he continue the Sisyphean task of wrangling Tea Party Republicans into a governing coalition.
We’re still waiting on an answer, but if last night’s vote on Hurricane Sandy aid was any indication, we may see more of the former over the next year than the latter. First the facts: Last night, the House approved $50 billion in additional relief for Hurricane Sandy. But, just as with the fiscal-cliff vote, the large majority of support came from Democrats—192 members of the caucus voted for the legislation. By contrast, only 49 Republicans voted for the measure, versus the 179 who voted it against it.
Is this the beginning of a trend? The fact of the matter is that on issues where the GOP isn’t united, there exists a workable coalition of House Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, this is where we stand with the debt ceiling. Influential conservatives and individual Republican lawmakers have voiced caution over using the limit as leverage for negotiation. Just this morning, for example, the New Hampshire Union Leader asked Republicans to retreat from this hill, “Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives need to take a firm stand against Washington’s reckless spending habits. They just need to find a better place to make that stand than from atop the debt ceiling.”
Boehner’s willingness to reach across the other side for Democratic votes might be the approach needed to break the ongoing dynamic in the House. You have one group of Republicans who are willing to deal, one group who oppose deal making—but understand the necessity of certain bills—and another group that wants nothing more than to stand in opposition. Between the first two, Boehner has the support necessary to bring something to the floor and avoid violating the Hastert rule. And with support from the first group and House Democrats, he can pass the actual legislation.
Right now, President Obama is demanding a clean extension of the debt ceiling, and it’s this approach that might help us avoid an economic disaster and—possibly—take the ceiling off the table as a political tool.