Boehner Agonistes (again)

September 18, 2013

House Republican leaders appear intent on holding a vote on a measure that would fund the government beyond Sept. 30 and defund President Obama's signature health-care law, the declared goal of many of the lower chamber's most conservative members.

(Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)
(Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

There are several reasons to believe the plan, first reported by National Review's Robert Costa and confirmed by The Washington Post, will bring House Republicans right back to where they are now -- without a deal in sight -- only with less time on the clock.

Here's the long and short of it: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wants to get a deal done to keep the government running. But the political right has applied serious pressure on him to use the negotiations to try to defund Obamacare, an idea that is a nonstarter in the Democratic-controlled Senate and, needless to say, the White House.

But by passing a bill that defunds Obamcare, House leaders would shift pressure to the Democratic-controlled Senate to either 1) Follow suit or 2) Demonstrate once and for all that it simply will not pass a bill that defunds Obamacare.

"This puts the pressure on McConnell now," said one Republican working on the Defund Obamacare movement who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. "This whole effort started in the Senate with [Sen.] Mike Lee, so now that Boehner is going to allow the vote to happen, presuming he does, McConnell will have to decide whether to fish or cut bait. I think he'll fish."

But even if McConnell were to throw his weight behind the effort, getting enough other Republicans to join the fight would be a very tall order. In short, don't count on it.

In all likelihood, the Senate would pass a CR that doesn't defund Obamacare. The idea then could be for House GOP leaders to urge conservative members to suck it up, support such a plan, and live to fight another day -- more specifically during the debate over the debt ceiling, which will culminate sometime next month.

But that presupposes that the most conservative members of the House -- call them the cast-iron conservatives -- will go along. And that's a big ask -- probably too big an ask.

Why? Three reasons.

One, these conservatives have already demonstrated a willingness to buck leadership. Two, many of them view this as the last best chance to derail Obamacare, given imminent implementation dates. Three, their biggest political concerns are primary challenges and the ire of conservative groups who also want to shred Obamacare at all costs. A "we-tried-once-so-now-let's-back-away" posture won't ease any of their political pressures.

What's more, in order for a budget strategy to really be tested, it must be drawn out to the last moment. These negotiations have increasingly become blinking contests, and Defund Obamacare advocates aren’t going to be happy until Senate Democrats are faced with a choice between a government shutdown and defunding Obamacare. Anything else will be seen as a token effort.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday, "No decisions have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow." But if this is way House GOP leaders end up going, it could pose two problems for them.

One is time. If the Senate, as expected, fails to pass the House plan, and the cast-iron conservatives don't bend after that, it's back to square one. Except that there would likely be substantially less time left on the clock at that point.

The second is a lack of feasible options that would exist after that. If House GOP leaders demonstrating clearly that the Senate won't pass an Obamacare repeal doesn't move the most conservative members to compromise, it's hard to argue that anything would.

"Speaker Boehner has become the substitute teacher who has lost control of the classroom," tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) last week.

If Boehner doesn't want his legacy from this debate to end up being some version of that statement, he and his top deputies will have to come up with a workable solution with the clock ticking down. But at this point, it's difficult to see what that solution would look like.

Fixbits:

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) will be "answering the question" of what's next for her career on Oct. 3. That means she will be announcing whether she is running for governor.

President Obama called for Congress to revisit the gun control debate. On immigration, Obama ruled out using his executive authority to freeze deportations for most of the nation's illegal immigrants.

A new poll shows Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D) has a massive 43-point lead over Republican nominee Joe Lhota in the New York City mayor's race, according to a new poll.

Kansas state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D) will challenge Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for the Senate.

Must-reads:

"As Budget Fight Looms, Obama Sees Defiance in His Own Party" -- Peter Baker and Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

"Va. Lt. Gov. Bolling’s part in endorsement controversy angers fellow Republicans" -- Laura Vozzella, Washington Post

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Chris Cillizza | September 17, 2013