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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:03 AM ET, 04/05/2011

Boehner and the shutdown: A man in the middle

House Speaker John Boehner comments on the problems in passing a long-term spending bill, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner is a man caught in the middle. As the threat of a government shutdown looms, the Republican Speaker of the House finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to pacify the most conservative flank of his party while remaining realistic about the damage shutting the government’s doors could do to the image of his party.

It is not easy, after all, to credibly maintain that $33 billion in cuts—the number Democrats say they have agreed upon, even while Boehner refutes it—is not enough when that is $1 billion more than the $32 billion in cuts his party’s leadership said they were seeking just two months ago, and more than the amount Democrats once said were “draconian” and “unworkable.” And it is extremely difficult to try to find a solution when you are the leader of a party with a large contingent of energized rookies who, as the Post’s Michael Gerson wrote, seem to prefer a fight to a victory. (Their constituents apparently do, too: Some 68 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters who support the ideals of the tea party prefer a government shutdown to a compromise.)

So what can a leader in Boehner’s position do? Punt, of course. Late Monday, the Speaker introduced the seventh—yes, seventh—short-term stop-gap funding measure, which would keep government funding flowing for another week. The proposal includes an additional $12 billion in cuts, funding for the Pentagon through the end of the year, and a policy rider that prevents federal and local funds from being used for abortions in Washington, D.C.  The White House has already reportedly said it is a no-go.

But that’s not the only thing he can—or should—do. Boehner must realize that he can’t have it both ways. There doesn’t appear to be an answer for satisfying the most extreme conservatives in his party and keeping the government from shutting down, an event that a growing number of Republican voters are seeing as politics, pure and simple.

Put simply, he needs to do what leaders are asked to do every day: Make the tough call on the best way forward. That may be to risk offending the most conservative wing of his party in favor of a resolution to a budget battle that is now so delayed it is colliding with next year’s budget war. Republicans have already won a lot from Democrats, and next year’s battle, with the radical reforms being called for in Rep. Paul Ryan’s new proposal, is likely to be even more dramatic.

Or, Boehner can choose to side with the tea-party backed wing, making the bet that going all in on a fight for even bigger cuts will be worth it to prevent further party upheaval. While that might anger more moderate Republicans and independent voters frustrated by the government’s inability to make a compromise, Boehner might wager that it will prevent further primary fights and image blows among his party’s most conservative wing.

We all hold out hope that a solution might come from a compromise—yet another leadership trait that seems so essential yet so missing in this frustrating and dysfunctional debate. But this battle has waged on for so long, and the various factions still seem so far apart, that the prospect of one looks increasingly unlikely. If he can’t broker a bargain, Boehner’s next best bet is to get out of the middle and make a tough call on which side offers the best way forward.  

More from On Leadership:

The true cost of a government shutdown

The federal worker’s shutdown guide

Getting the budget off life support

By  |  11:03 AM ET, 04/05/2011

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