Boehner hedging on debt-limit vote?

Not too long ago, Speaker John Boehner said that the House would have to pass an increase in the debt-ceiling limit, but should get major structural reform in exchange.  In an interview yesterday with Politico, Boehner changed his position, and now says the reform has to come before he’ll commit to a vote in the House on the debt ceiling:

Speaker John Boehner won’t guarantee a vote on raising the debt limit, the latest threat in an increasingly high stakes game of chicken with the White House over whether Congress will inch closer to letting the nation default on its credit.

Boehner, in an interview with POLITICO here Monday, also demanded that President Barack Obama give in to Republican demands to slash spending and dramatically change “the way we spend the peoples’ money.”

“If the president doesn’t get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there’s a chance it [the debt limit vote] could not happen,” Boehner told POLITICO after he toured a manufacturing company in this western Ohio town. “But that’s not my goal.”

Boehner wants a broad spectrum of reforms before committing to a vote, he tells Politico.  That should include both “controls” for discretionary spending and structural changes to entitlements.  The latter is particularly sensitive, as voters seem to want the federal government to stop deficit spending but don’t want to fix the sources of those massive deficits.

Of course, most voters don’t want the debt-ceiling limit raised, either.  That gives Boehner a lot more political leverage than he normally would have, since he can claim to represent the mandate of the electorate — and a broadly bipartisan mandate at that.  Even a plurality of Democratic voters don’t want it raised again (48% to 36% supporting an increase in the CBS poll).  But that’s also a trap for Boehner even if a deal is finally struck that includes both entitlement reform and a debt-ceiling hike; the result will be unpopular for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

That means that Boehner has to get entitlement reform and take ownership of it while putting the blame for the debt-limit increase on the White House, an effort amply assisted by the Obama administration’s early hysteria strategy on the issue.  He can’t afford to come out of the battle with nothing but the debt-limit increase and some assorted discretionary-spending caps that save just tens of billions of dollars like he did with the FY2011 budget.  There are no real ways to win in this fight, but plenty of ways to lose.  Boehner’s latest warning is a recognition of that fact.