How far will John Boehner go?

September 30, 2013

With the government set to shut down at midnight tonight, there is only one relevant question in political Washington: How far will House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) go?


U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) departs after a closed-door meeting of the House Republican caucus during a rare Saturday session at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As in, will Boehner continue to hold the line on tying some sort of repeal/delay of Obamacare to a measure to fund the government and, if so, how long can he (or will he) keep that position in the face of a shuttered federal government?

Boehner has already given some clues -- two in fact.

1. He shelved a plan forwarded by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) that would have allowed the Senate to remove the defunding of Obamacare from the continuing resolution to fund the government.

2. After the Senate, as expected, took the defunding Obamacare language out of the legislation and sent it back to the House, Boehner chose to forward a measure that would delay Obamacare for a year (and repeal a medical device tax).

On both occasions, Boehner sided with cast-iron conservatives -- offering very little wiggle room to Senate Democrats (or the White House) who have pledged publicly not to vote for any resolution funding the government beyond today that also includes provisions tied to Obamacare.

What we don't know is whether Boehner is simply trying to establish the strongest possible negotiating position for his party if (and really at this point when) a shutdown happens or whether he is simply digging in for the long haul -- with no real thought about positioning himself (and his conference) for a compromise.

Boehner's conundrum is this: He knows that most polling shows Republicans will take the blame for a shutdown. But, he also knows that if he gives in and/or is perceived by cast-iron conservatives as giving in, his speakership is all but over. (You could argue Boehner's speakership has been on the ropes for some time now. But passing a continuing resolution to keep the government running with a slew of Democratic votes would amount to a death blow.)

If he cuts a deal -- literally, any deal -- Boehner is effectively signing his own political death certificate (or damn close). If he doesn't cut a deal, he runs the very real risk of watching a political climate that should be conducive to Republican gains in 2014 shift against the GOP, as it becomes the symbol of the blockade in Washington that many voters are sick of.

Boehner, a savvy pol, knows all of this. But what we don't know (and, in truth, he might not know either) is how far is enough and how far is too much. As in, if the government shuts down for three days but Boehner is regarded as winning (or coming close to it) in the negotiation that ends the shutdown, is that success? Or is success -- in the eyes of cast-iron conservatives who may hold his speakership in their hands -- defined solely by full capitulation by the White House and Senate Democrats to their demands on Obamacare?

Boehner has to find that sweet spot -- if one exists -- in the coming days. Tilt too far one way and his speakership is history. Tilt too far the other way and the Republican majority in the House could be history.

Fixbits:

Here are the next possible steps in the government shutdown showdown.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the House would once again take aim at Obamacare if the Senate rejects its CR.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants a conference committee to work it all out.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) thinks a shutdown is going to happen.

The Justice Department will sue North Carolina over its new voting law.

Bill Clinton said President Obama is right not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. And he thinks the presidential nominating process includes too many caucuses.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) criticized House Republicans for trying to tie Obamacare to funding the government.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson accused former second lady Lynne Cheney of telling a "bald-faced lie."

Must-reads:

"On verge of a government shutdown, all is quiet on Sunday at the Capitol" --  Lori Montgomery and David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

"Republicans may have an edge with independent voters. Can they use it?" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

"A shutdown hours away, Congress spends time praying, hiking, parenting, partying" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | September 29, 2013