WASHINGTON (AP) — It was once the backbone of the House Republican majority — the hard-line stand that brought President Barack Obama to the negotiating table and yielded more than $2 trillion in deficit reduction.
On Tuesday, it abruptly vanished, the victim of Republican disunity and a president determined not to bargain again.
During the summer budget negotiations in 2011, House Speaker John Boehner had insisted that any increase in the nation's borrowing limit be matched dollar for dollar with spending cuts. It became the "Boehner Rule," a mantra of fiscal discipline. And while it didn't always live up to its tit-for-tat formula, it helped drive budget talks and kept deficit reduction at the fore of the Republican agenda.
But there are limits to Republican power, and on Tuesday inevitability finally caught up to the speaker.
Boehner let Congress vote on a measure to extend the nation's borrowing authority for 13 months without any spending conditions — a "clean bill" that was an unequivocal victory for Obama. It passed 221-201, with only 28 Republican votes. The Senate still has to approve the extension, but that's considered a mere formality in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
Boehner's retreat hardly came as a surprise.
Conservative lawmakers had failed to back a couple of proposed attachments aimed at Obama and his fellow Democrats. One would have approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the other would have repealed a provision of the health care law. Either of those faced unified Democratic opposition, so Boehner would have needed 218 Republican votes to pass it in the House. But conservatives were either determined to vote against the debt ceiling increase, no matter what, or found the provisions too small a price for their vote.
"When you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing," Boehner said.
Starting last year, Obama has steadfastly refused to negotiate over giving the Treasury Department the authority to borrow the money it needs to pay bills like Social Security benefits, payments on government debt and checks for federal workers.
For Boehner, however, not all was lost. He placed the burden of extending Treasury's borrowing authority — not a politically popular vote — on the Democrats, and most members of his party got to vote no.
What's more, the decision helped remove a potentially damaging diversion. Republican allies in the business community have long pleaded with Republicans not to play brinkmanship with the nation's credit. Last year's threat of default, followed by a partial government shutdown over stalled budget talks, harmed Republicans in the eyes of the public.
Instead, Boehner and his leadership team have decided to keep the political focus on Obama's health care law, which they have targeted as the Achilles' heel for Democrats in this election year.
It was the second time in two weeks that Boehner swept away an issue that threatened to overshadow the GOP attention on health care. He had outlined principles on how to achieve an overhaul of immigration law. But faced with a conservative outcry, Boehner last week deep-sixed the issue, declaring that immigration legislation this year was a long shot.
"Boehner's thinking here is we have to pick the smarter fight," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior congressional leadership aide. "The smarter fight is Obamacare. If we get dragged into a protracted fight over the debt limit, like the one we saw over the government shutdown, it provides a distraction over the bigger issues the party can litigate."
Conservative, tea party-aligned groups immediately objected to Boehner's decision, calling it a capitulation and demanding that Republicans vote against the debt ceiling increase.
"When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt ceiling increase, we thought it was a joke," Andy Roth of the conservative Club for Growth wrote in an email to congressional offices. "Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party."
But among lawmakers, the reaction was muted. When Boehner announced his decision in a private meeting with Republicans, one participant described the reaction as resigned silence. And during scheduled debate on the House floor, Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, was the only Republican to speak, reluctantly giving his support for allowing Treasury to borrow more money.
"While I believe that we must increase our debt limit, I'm clearly not satisfied that there are no provisions that would help us address the long-term drivers of this debt," he said, before becoming one of the 28 Republicans who voted for the measure.
This all could change if Republicans win control of the Senate in November. Republicans would then control Congress and Obama might have little recourse but to accept some Republican demands.
A Republican victory in the fall, Madden said, would mean "the most recent electoral mandate would be favorable to the Republican bargaining position."
Boehner, for one, was not giving up. Asked if the "Boehner Rule" was dead, he said, "I hope not."
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An avalanche in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon killed two backcountry skiers and seriously injured two others Tuesday, officials said.
Low clouds and poor visibility grounded a rescue effort for the injured skiers late Tuesday night, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said. Two medics were with the man and woman.
Four unhurt skiers from the party of eight were being brought out by snowcat, a large tracked vehicle that can maneuver on snow. Thompson said the four were being taken to the small town of Halfway, about 10 miles from the avalanche site.
The snowcat was unable to reach the injured skiers because of the incline of the slope they were on, the undersheriff said. The injured woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury while the man had a broken thigh bone, Thompson said.
Two National Guard helicopters, one each from Oregon and Idaho, planned to overnight at the Baker City airport and hoped to resume rescue efforts at first light Wednesday, Thompson said. Ground rescue crews were also working to get closer to the site.
Most of the skiers were from the Seattle area. Officials weren't releasing names until relatives could be notified.
The avalanche hit at about noon Tuesday as the eight skied in the remote and mountainous area near Cornucopia, Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said in a statement.
Connelly Brown, the owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts, said the skiers were part of a backcountry skiing group organized by his Joseph-based company. The group included two guides and six skiers.
Brown said a guide contacted him by cellphone after the avalanche hit, reporting two possible fatalities and two skiers with broken legs. The skiers were on a guided five-day, four-night trip, he said.
The avalanche came down on the third day of the trip, Brown said. Later that night, as on previous nights, the group planned to sleep at the Schneider Cabin, a historic miners' log cabin on the south side of Cornucopia Peak.
Brown said the clients and the guides are all "fit, proficient downhill skiers." The guides were certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and trained by the American Mountain Guide Association, he said.
"From the description, it sounded like they were traveling and the avalanche came from above and caught them by surprise," Brown said.
The avalanche occurred in the southern part of the Wallowa Mountains, near the Idaho border. The Wallowas are known as the "Alps of Oregon." With their rocky peaks and deep ravines, the mountains are popular with backcountry skiers, hikers and horseback riders.
A bulletin from the Wallowa Avalanche Center on Thursday warned that "new snow is not bonding well to the old surface." The bulletin mentioned a recent report from the southern Wallowas of a skier triggering a small avalanche in which no one was caught.
The deaths mean at least 12 people have died in avalanches nationally this season, including six since Sunday. Kevin Kuybus, 46, of Highlands Ranch, Colo., was found dead Tuesday after an avalanche outside a Colorado ski area. Another avalanche near Kebler Pass, Colo., killed a snowmobiler Monday, and two people died in slides in Utah over the weekend.