Politics of the House Vote to Raise the Debt Ceiling

By Sarah Binder

Just a few observations about Monday night’s passage of the deficit deal in the House:

1.   Any immediate risk to John Boehner’s speakership has been allayed.  Boehner managed to win the support of nearly three-quarters of the House Republican majority.   Similar to the dynamic in the April budget deal, the fabled “majority of the majority” standard no longer seems  a sufficient benchmark for leading the House majority.  It seems more likely that a super majority of the majority is required to keep intra-party challenges at bay.   In practical terms, this means that Boehner had no choice but to accede to conservatives’ demands that the deficit bill be moved to the right last Friday—making a second increase in the debt ceiling conditional on passage of a balanced budget amendment.  Intentional or not, that rightward shift of the Boehner bill last week made it possible for Republicans to make concessions to Democrats this past weekend without letting the final deal move too close to the center.

2. Ginning up a quick model to look more closely at Republican votes on the deficit deal, a few patterns emerge.  First, Republicans elected in districts won by Obama in 2008 were significantly more likely to vote for the bill.  Typically, these are competitive districts (such as Frank Wolf’s in Northern Virginia or Jim Gerlach’s on the Mainline in Philly), suggesting that these Republicans are attentive to the centrist pull or heterogeneity of the district.  As former Rep. Tom Davis (himself a centrist GOP) noted about Republican moderates who supported the deal, “That’s kind of their lot in life…that they always are the grown-ups.” Second, and not surprisingly, Republicans backed by the Tea Party in the 2010 elections tended to vote disproportionately against the deal, as did members of the Republican Study Committee.   All told, roughly a fifth of the Republican conference voted against both the April budget deal and this week’s deficit deal.

3.  As for the Democrats, leave it to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to deliver (effortlessly, it seemed) yes votes from exactly half of her voting Democratic colleagues—as well as from Rep. Gabby Giffords.  No mean feat, I say.  The clearest pattern amongst the Democratic Caucus were the votes of Blue Dogs, who voted disproportionately in favor of the deal, presumably reflecting their fiscal conservatism.  I pick up a slight effect of electoral margin on Democratic votes, with safer Democrats more slightly more likely to reject the deal—most likely capturing the votes of liberals in safe Democratic seats inclined to vote against a package that raised no new revenues.

4.  Finally, the neat trick of the day.  Not only did the Democratic Caucus split neatly down the middle, so too did the Sanchez sisters.  Loretta voted for the deal; Linda, against.  August family get-togethers for the Sanchez family will be very hot this year for sure.

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]