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Boehner wins a round, but Tea Party could still deny him debt-ceiling victory

In the end, it took the promise of a quixotic constitutional amendment banning budget deficits for enough Tea Partiers to line up behind an embattled and exhausted Republican Speaker.

But John Boehner got his bill to increase the U.S. government's debt limit passed in the House of Representatives Friday night, strengthening his hand as he enters a climactic weekend of negotiations with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The two leaders must come to a deal if the U.S. government is to avoid running out of money to pay its bills on Tuesday. Without increasing the U.S. Treasury's $14.3-trillion debt ceiling, the government risks defaulting on its bonds and sowing global economic chaos.

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That harrowing prospect may have left most of the nation apoplectic, but Tea Partiers in Congress are unmoved. Indeed, many of them deny the possibility of default, saying the Treasury could just pay the interest on its existing debt out of incoming tax revenues - and cut everything else.

Mr. Boehner's recalcitrant caucus left him twisting in the wind on Thursday as he struggled to find the 216 votes he needed to push his bill through the House. As the clock ticked toward midnight, he called it a day.

On Friday morning, a determined Speaker gathered his 239 members to announce he was tacking a balanced budget amendment on to his bill. A constitutional amendment banning deficits is catnip to U.S. conservatives, who believe capping federal spending at 18 per cent of gross domestic product (compared with 24 per cent now) would solve everything.

No matter that such an amendment could never get through all the hoops required for ratification. Its mere mention in Mr. Boehner's bill finally allowed him to pass his legislation with only Republican votes in the House.

Though the bill was nearly immediately blocked in the Democrat-led Senate, its House passage proved the Speaker could rally his caucus in a crunch.

Mr. Reid is on shakier ground. There are only 53 Democrats in the Senate, but he needs 60 votes to bring his competing debt ceiling bill to a vote in the upper chamber.

All other things being equal, the likelihood has increased that any final debt-ceiling deal will now hew even more closely to Republican priorities. The White House has already given up asking for more tax revenue.

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"The folks on the other side of the negotiating table were trying to drive wedges between the Speaker and factions within his caucus," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, Mr. Boehner's former press secretary. "Instead, what you now have is a Republican caucus that has the most leverage at the bargaining table."

The Boehner bill passed 218 to 210. The close vote understates the extent of Mr. Boehner's support among his caucus. The Speaker only sought as many votes as he needed, in order to spare his most vulnerable members the wrath of hard-line conservative voters - who are against any debt ceiling increase - come primary time next year.

Indeed, what gave many of Mr. Boehner's members cold feet on Thursday was the groundswell of opposition to raising the debt limit among Tea Party leaders outside Congress.

Former vice-presidential candidate and fellow debt-ceiling denier Sarah Palin took to Facebook on Thursday to warn first-term Republicans elected in last November's Tea Party wave that "they were sent for to D.C. for such a time as this." She also hinted at what might await them if they wavered: "Everyone I talk to still believes in contested primaries."

Mr. Boehner's bill would have raised the debt ceiling by about $900-billion now in exchange for a similar amount in spending cuts over 10 years. That would only be enough to extend government borrowing through year-end. President Barack Obama would have to seek another debt-ceiling hike while campaigning for re-election in 2012 - and that increase would be contingent on Congress first passing another $1.6-trillion package of cuts and ratifying a balanced budget amendment.

The White House wants to avoid this scenario above all and has thrown its support behind Mr. Reid. His Senate bill would raise the debt ceiling by $2.4-trillion now - or enough to get past the 2012 election - and cut spending by $2.2-trillion over the next decade.

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"This is not a situation where the two parties are miles apart," Mr. Obama insisted on Friday. "There are plenty of ways out of this mess. But we are almost out of time."

The President stated the obvious when he said "any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan." Ultimately, Mr. Reid and Mr. Boehner must agree on an identical bill that can get a majority of votes in both chambers and survive a possible Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Unless one caves, both will need to give a little.

For Mr. Boehner, the taste of victory may not last the weekend. If he moves a centimetre in the direction of compromise, he will face renewed revolt in his caucus.

If there was any doubt left, freshmen House Republicans have now demonstrated their readiness to defy the will of the American people, even if it costs them their seats next year.

They have also shown that they will not defy the Tea Party activists who ensured their victory last year - not for the good of the nation, and certainly not to relieve the collective blood pressure.

If Washington was dysfunctional before the 87 Republican freshmen arrived in town last winter, the current chaos on Capitol Hill makes the Lohans look like a traditional family.

In the old days, the Speaker could corral a wayward member by throwing customized pork into any bill. The Tea Party insurgents in Mr. Boehner's caucus cannot be bought, at least not in the traditional way.

Americans might respect the Tea Partiers' integrity were it not for the fact that their intransigence is straining the fabric of an already tested nation. Voters were angry when they threw out scores of Democrats last fall. They're now inconsolable. Their hate-on for Congress makes Wall Street look popular.

Someone, if not everyone, in Washington will pay for this in 2012.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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