Searching for a Debt Ceiling: Boehner’s Uncertain BATNA

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As the U.S. government approaches a potentially catastrophic default on its debt in October, President Obama remains determined to avoid negotiations with Republican leaders on the issue, the New York Times reports, a situation that leaves House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner with an uncertain BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Boehner reportedly met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on September 11 in an attempt to persuade the Obama administration to negotiate tradeoffs between an increase in the government’s borrowing limit and significant budget cuts. Arguing that such negotiations are routine, Boehner cited a list of past bipartisan debt-ceiling deals. The following day, Boehner met with both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to make his point.

Yet Democrats in the White House and Congress remain adamant that the president will not negotiate on the question of the debt ceiling. They hold House Republican leaders responsible for passing an increase in the debt ceiling by mid-October—or accept responsibility for a default, according to the Times. They apparently calculate that the voters will blame Republicans, rather than Obama, for a default.

Boehner finds himself under pressure from House conservatives to tie any government financing legislation to defunding of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Yet such a deal cannot win enough votes to pass the House, leaving Boehner in a bind.

Assuming Obama stands firm on his refusal to negotiate, Boehner must try to come up with an appealing BATNA. His best course of action may be to focus on negotiations with other Republicans for the time being, hashing out concessions that could prove to the White House that he has made a good-faith effort to avoid a default. Given that a default would damage Obama’s reputation as well, he might be willing to come to the table after Boehner has found a way to lessen the negative impact of any negotiated agreement they might reach.

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