The tense back-and-forth that brought the government to the brink of a shutdown Friday represented the first big test of Boehner’s leadership and a glimpse of how the new speaker will handle a job that has had more than its share of challenges: a tough economy, a Democratic president and Senate, a rebellious contingent of inexperienced tea party freshmen, and an ambitious, sometimes fractious team of lieutenants, some of whom have aspirations for Boehner’s job.
Boehner knew as well as anyone that the fight was a prelude to larger battles ahead. One will be over the House Republicans’ 2012 budget, which would make far bigger cuts in spending and would fundamentally change the nature of federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; another will be over needed legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling, which many of his freshman members have vowed to block.
As he announced the budget deal shortly before the Friday midnight deadline that would have brought a shutdown, Boehner framed it as a step toward a much larger goal: “We fought to keep government spending down, because it really will affect and create a better environment for job creators in our country.”
The final sticking point — a dispute over whether Republicans would prevail in their demand to include a provision ending federal funds for Planned Parenthood — underscored both the weakness and the strength of Boehner’s position.
On one hand, it allowed Democrats to make the argument that Republicans were using the must-pass spending bill to ram through less popular parts of their conservative agenda. On the other, the abortion issue and other extraneous “riders” added to the bill gave Boehner a stack of bargaining chips that he could trade at the last minute for further spending reductions.
The messy, fitful process left Democrats saying that they often had no idea whether Boehner had his hand on the tiller or was caught in his party’s political crosscurrents.
“It seems every step we take, it’s something just to poke us in the eye,” a frustrated Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said at one point this week. “They are not trying to arrive at the finish line. It appears that they’re going to do everything they can to satisfy the tea party.”
Having worked for days on the assumption that everyone was aiming for $33 billion in cuts, for instance, the Democratic negotiators were startled when Boehner indicated Tuesday that he was holding out for as much as $40 billion.
The Democrats left Thursday night’s talks convinced that Boehner had agreed to a deal, only to be told hours later by his staff that he had not, said one Democratic official, who agreed to discuss the details of the negotiations on the condition that he not be identified.