A high-stakes drama played out over the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill this week. It ended with President Obama getting exactly what he'd asked for an extension of the Treasury's borrowing authority with no strings attached and an even wider gulf between GOP congressional leaders and Tea Party-aligned conservatives.
Underlying the Republican rift was House Speaker John Boehner's determination to avoid another episode like last fall's government shutdown.
Boehner initially tried adding one sweetener after another to a debt limit extension, but none managed to get enough fellow Republicans on board. Resorting to a bill with no conditions one that would win the votes of almost all the Democrats, but few Republicans was an outcome Boehner seemed to anticipate while speaking with reporters last week.
"Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn't get 218 Republican votes," Boehner said.
On Tuesday, he bowed to that reality, telling his stunned caucus that he was offering a "clean" debt ceiling hike. His explanation afterward was simple.
"It's the fact that we don't have 218 votes. And when you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing," he said. "You've seen that before. We see it again."
Indeed, it was the sixth time since the start of last year that Boehner relied on House Democrats to pass legislation sharply opposed by Tea Party-backed members. President Obama praised those Democrats Friday while speaking at their annual retreat.
"The fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why, when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off," Obama said. "I could not be more thankful and more appreciative and prouder of what you're doing."
But Boehner's conservative critics are furious. Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, started a nationwide petition this week demanding that Boehner be fired as speaker.
"Speaker Boehner is unable to lead the House of Representatives," Martin said. "He's certainly unable to lead his own caucus."
As he has done increasingly with other votes, Boehner ignored demands from conservative groups for lawmakers to oppose the clean debt limit bill. One such group was Heritage Action for America, whose spokesman, Dan Holler, expressed displeasure.
"The speaker and Majority Leader Cantor and others have always had the option of working with Democrats to pass these bills. And if that's the sort of Republican-controlled House they want where they have Democrats that are the sort of de facto majority in terms of setting policy that's a decision they can make," he said. "It's not the right one. But it's one that they control the floor and they have to make."
Late last year, on the day the House passed a bipartisan budget deal over outside groups' objections, Boehner made clear what he thought of them: "Are you kidding me?" he said.
That outburst punctuated Boehner's observation that such groups pushed for a government shutdown last fall despite doubting that it would work. A reporter asked if he was finally saying "no" to the Tea Party.
"I think they're misleading their followers," Boehner said. "They're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be and, frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility."
And yet this was the very same speaker who, nearly three years ago, put the White House on notice that he expected some big concessions for raising the debt ceiling.
"Without significant spending cuts and changes in the way we spend the American people's money, there will be no increase in the debt limit," he said. "The cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in the debt limit that the president is given."
The showdown that then ensued led to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating. The harm that the episode caused Republicans was compounded by last year's shutdown.
This time, Boehner's decision to attach no strings to a debt limit extension spared the nation one more crisis and his party another political black eye. It also allowed most Republicans to vote against a measure they likely knew, in the end, had to pass.