Boehner faces double challenge that will define his leadership

Dangling pizza slices when members of your own party are refusing to do your bidding might have seemed like a bright idea to John Boehner late on Thursday, but it didn't work. Thin crust or deep pan, they were not enough to spare the Speaker of the House the biggest humiliation of his career.

America watched in astonishment as Mr Boehner first promised that his debt-ceiling plan would pass the House of Representatives within hours, only later to pull it off the table. He had spent hours arm-twisting (and pizza-tempting) conservative members of his party who thought the plan too feeble and, plainly, had failed.

Mr Boehner managed finally to push a revised plan through the House of Representatives last night and he attempted a bullish tone on the floor before the vote. "I stuck my neck out a mile" in his efforts to negotiate with the Democrats and the White House, he thundered. Yet Mr Boehner only got there by succumbing to his right wing yet again. While the headline numbers remained the same, he agreed that the second phase of the plan would be contingent on Congress seeking a constitutional amendment to force government to balance its budgets.

Many saw this coming. Mr Boehner, who is from Ohio and has a reputation for becoming emotional, was swept to the top post in the House when his party swamped the Democrats last November to win back the majority. The Tea Party effectively put him there; now it is pulling his strings like a puppet.

"He's got the most difficult job on the planet," agreed Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, a Tea Party-backed newcomer to the Hill who was among those who would not be swayed by the Speaker on Thursday. Inevitably, questions about Mr Boehner's leadership style – he has a reputation for deploying gentlemanly courtesy in trying to corral members, rather than shouting and desk-thumping – will be raised. "If you were looking for a pretext to stage a coup, that would be a pretty good one," Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg News before the votes finally aligned for him last night.

He is at risk also by virtue of his more or less moderate politics. He tries to play lip-service to his Tea Party wing, but they are clearly unconvinced, at least on this issue. But Thursday night, ghastly though it was with a mortified America watching every twist in the agony, may prove to be only the first test for Mr Boehner.

Last night he prevailed and his face was saved. But now he must start negotiations with the Democrat majority in the Senate on a compromise package that his conservative members will like even less. If Mr Boehner achieves that by the cut-off point on Tuesday, the country will be grateful and the outlines of his legacy may be much improved. But the Tea Party faction might dislike him all the more.

What next for the President – and the global economy?

A Long-Term Deal

The biggest divide between the two sides is whether the rise in the debt ceiling should carry the US through to the next election or be renewed sooner. In the best-case scenario for Obama, he would seal a deal which would close the subject until his bid for re-election was over. But his hand will weaken the longer the fight goes on. LIKELIHOOD: 3/10

A Quick Fix

Republicans say the President should not be given a blank cheque for the rest of his term – and would delight in the chance to force him into a similarly difficult position next year. But even some in the GOP dread the return of an issue which has done them as much harm as it has Obama. If the fight lasts the weekend the hardliners may get their way. LIKELIHOOD: 4/10

No Deal

Will only come about if both sides remain convinced that the other is bluffing, only to discover too late they are not. If no deal is struck Obama will have to start delaying payments – maybe to recipients of benefits – and perhaps start selling government assets at fire-sale prices. A credit rating downgrade would be a strong possibility. LIKELIHOOD: 2/10

The Nuclear Option

The 14th Amendment says the US public debt 'shall not be questioned', which some scholars believe gives Obama the right to raise the limit unilaterally. But this is a thorny legal issue which could lead to Republican efforts to impeach the President – a political crisis he will be desperate to avoid. So far the White House has denied that it could be used. LIKELIHOOD: 1/10

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