Congressional Republican leaders returned to Washington this week with no clear plan for extending government funding later this month that risks shutting down federal agencies amid a growing outcry from conservatives ready for a fight over funding Planned Parenthood.
The once-normal process of approving a stopgap bill that keeps the federal government operating on the previous year’s fiscal budget has become anything but routine during House Speaker John A. Boehner’s five-year tenure. This latest showdown, like its recent predecessors, is another example that brinksmanship — involving countdown clocks and advisories to federal workers about the possible expiration of funding on Sept. 30 — is the new normal.
Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday that there was “widespread support” among House Republicans to approve a stopgap bill well into the fall to allow for more time to negotiate final budget numbers with President Obama. But, he acknowledged, GOP leaders have not decided how to handle the large demand for language in the funding plan that would strip Planned Parenthood of the small amount of federal funds it receives each year following the release of undercover videos alleging that some agents of the group sell body parts of aborted fetuses.
“I have not made any decisions,” Boehner told reporters after a regular closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus. “No decisions at this point.”
The speaker’s closest ally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), has already signaled that there is no chance of getting a funding bill through with limitations on the female-health-service provider because Senate Democrats have enough votes to filibuster such a bill and Republicans have nowhere near enough votes to reach a two-thirds majority to override a likely veto from Obama.
Those dynamics have left GOP leaders privately trying to pursue a path that would focus the campaign against Planned Parenthood on committee hearings and investigations, while keeping the government funded without another shutdown.
According to a Republican in the room, Boehner and some of the most veteran antiabortion lawmakers supported other legislative vehicles and warned that using the spending process would not guarantee the behavior in question would end. No particular path was ruled out. “We make decisions as a team,” he told the caucus, according to notes from the Republican.
McConnell has regularly cautioned against another government shutdown, saying that there is “no education in the second kick of a mule.” His reference is to the 16-day shutdown in 2013 that was politically harmful for Republicans.
The situation is complicated, however, by Boehner’s enemies, an emboldened conservative bloc which now boasts the signatures of 31 Republicans on a letter pledging to oppose any spending measure that continues federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) suggested that congressional GOP leaders were not willing to fight hard enough.
“We’re setting up for surrender,” Mulvaney said Wednesday at a gathering of House conservatives. “Leadership is going to have to choose: Do they want it to be a talking point, or do they want to actually do something about it?”
This clutch of far-right conservatives, under the recently formed banner of the “Freedom Caucus,” has adopted the language of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who regularly accuses McConnell of liberal misdeeds and often asserts that McConnell’s leadership is no different from his Democratic predecessor, Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
“Until Mitch wakes up and realizes that he’s no different than Harry Reid right now, it’s going to be a real rugged couple of months,” Mulvaney said.
With up to three dozen Republicans balking, Boehner must go to Democrats in order to avoid a federal shutdown, a circumstance that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is well aware of and is hoping to exploit to Democrats’ advantage.
Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that her demand in exchange for keeping the government open is to have a public commencement of “good-faith” negotiations that would lead to a bipartisan deal loosening restraints on federal spending under the 2011 Budget Control Act, commonly referred to as “sequestration.”
Democrats are seeking an additional even split in increased funds for domestic agencies and the Pentagon.
“We want to see some progress but, again, let’s come to the table and say what is our goal, what is our timetable and what are our milestones,” Pelosi said.
Republicans have pushed for greater national security spending but without any additional spending for domestic programs favored by Democrats. Some Republicans have even sought deeper cuts in domestic spending to offset the larger amount of defense funds.
Engaging in talks with Pelosi and Obama risks losing more support from Republicans who consider themselves fiscal hawks, and the greater number of Republicans who defect against Boehner on government funding, the weaker his already tenuous hold on the speaker’s gavel appears to be.
All this comes as some conservatives are threatening to force a vote of no confidence in Boehner’s speakership — Mulvaney describes the potential no-confidence vote as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over Boehner’s head throughout a series of fiscal showdowns this fall.
Pelosi said that Boehner’s only path to avoiding a shutdown was through her caucus rather than the conservatives, who want big showdowns that result in bad political outcomes for their own leadership and for the White House.
“Anti-governance, anti-science and anti-President Obama,” Pelosi said. “They have a trifecta, three comfort levels at which they will shut down the government and be very happy about it.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.