Previous work on group I introns has suggested that a central base triple might be more important for the first rather than the second step of self-splicing, leading to a model in which the base triple undergoes a conformational change during self-splicing. Here, we use the well-characterized L-21 ScaI ribozyme derived from the Tetrahymena group I intron to probe the effects of base-triple disruption on individual reaction steps. Consistent with previous results, reaction of a ternary complex mimicking the first chemical step in self-splicing is slowed by mutations in this base triple, whereas reaction of a ternary complex mimicking the second step of self-splicing is not. Paradoxically, mechanistic dissection of the base-triple disruption mutants indicates that active site binding is weakened uniformly for the 5'-splice site and the 5'-exon analog, mimics for the species bound in the first and second step of self-splicing. Nevertheless, the 5'-exon analog remains bound at the active site, whereas the 5'-splice site analog does not. This differential effect arises despite the uniform destabilization, because the wild-type ribozyme binds the 5'-exon analog more strongly in the active site than in the 5'-splice site analog. Thus, binding into the active site constitutes an additional barrier to reaction of the 5'-splice site analog, but not the 5'-exon analog, resulting in a reduced reaction rate constant for the first step analog, but not the second step analog. This threshold model explains the self-splicing observations without the need to invoke a conformational change involving the base triple, and underscores the importance of quantitative dissection for the interpretation of effects from mutations.