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September 20, 2013 7:33 AM A Lifeline for Boehner?

By Martin Longman

Noam Scheiber has been providing solid prognostication on the budget/debt ceiling fiasco and he is perturbed to discover a possible kink in his analysis. Might the administration offer John Boehner a lifeline at just the moment that he’s about to slip beneath the sands?

Scheiber’s predictions have been predicated on a confluence of perverse interests. The Tea Party wants a government shutdown either because calling for one is good for fundraising or because their heat-fevered brains are malfunctioning. Speaker Boehner wants a government shutdown because only the blunt force of outraged public opinion has any hope of breaking the heat-fever that has infected his caucus. Congressional Democrats want a government shutdown because it is possibly a prerequisite for turning enough red districts blue that they can have a positive midterm election next year. And the White House wants a government shutdown because there is no deal on offer that they are ready to accept to prevent one.

But maybe that analysis is a little too pat. I can, for example, give counterexamples that argue exactly the opposite. The Tea Party is doing great right now, making money hand over fist, running the show, making the Speaker dance to their tune. Why would they want to have their bluff called and become the skunk in the room? They can only be the purist anti-Washington brigades for freedom so long as the Establishment is ignoring them. When the Establishment adopts their strategy and swiftly falls on its face, that can’t be a good thing for the Tea Party. As to the Speaker, no one has been more transparent than Boehner about his distaste for a government shutdown. He hasn’t wanted one and, if he wants one now, it is only in the most grudging sense. The Congressional Democrats have the most to gain and the least to lose from a government shutdown, but they also care about the bottom line. They want to turn off the sequester. If that could be accomplished without a government shutdown, they’d likely take it. Finally, the White House doesn’t want to be seen as transparently rooting for a government shutdown, so they must produce some narrative that explains how they envision a shutdown being avoided. And that narrative can’t involve making any concessions on the debt ceiling.

What is the White House narrative? Perhaps it is at least partially revealed in this Politico piece:

Here’s the reality: Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will eventually have to bring a funding bill to the House floor that keeps the government — and Obamacare — running. That’s the bill the House will most likely receive from the Senate shortly after Boehner’s chamber resumes work on Wednesday, just days short of an Oct. 1 government shutdown.
That’s because the Senate will not accept the entirety of the three-month $986 billion continuing resolution that Boehner will attempt to pass Friday. The Senate will strip the language that’s meant to defund President Barack Obama’s health care law — strong language that was drafted to appease Boehner’s right wing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, can remove that Obamacare provision with a simple majority vote in the upper chamber.
If Reid is successful and the Senate clears the revised continuing resolution, Boehner and House Republicans will then be back in the spotlight. And the speaker may need the support of House Democrats to pass the measure.
It won’t be pretty, but that so-called clean CR could pass the House with roughly 180 Republican votes with the remainder coming from the Democratic side of the aisle, according to senior GOP sources. White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors met with the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday to walk through government funding scenarios. Although some Democrats are pushing to turn off the sequester as part of any CR deal, White House officials believe they can count on between 40 and 50 Democratic votes for a clean CR at the $986 billion level, giving House leaders enough to reach the key 217 vote level.

It’s this idea of 40 to 50 Democrats signing off on the $986 billion level of spending that has Mr. Scheiber feeling apoplectic. Yet, he seems less upset about the funding level than he is disappointed that a shutdown might be averted. This is because he thinks a shutdown is required to prevent the Congressional Republicans from causing a disastrous default on our debts. But I am not sure his reasoning here is sound.

What is being described in the Politico article is a scenario in which the majority of House Republicans reject the idea that ObamaCare can be tied to the Continuing Resolution and agree to keep the government open for another three months, during which time the health care exchanges will open and the heat fever will begin to die off. Then, when Boehner has to violate the Hastert Rule in order to lift the debt ceiling, he won’t be doing it for the second time in two weeks. It will be his first bite at that apple in a while, and he’ll have a much easier time surviving it.

It’s true that the Democrats can sit back and let the shutdown happen and possibly have a more complete victory which might include forcing Boehner to rely on their votes if he wants to remain the Speaker. But I wouldn’t describe something less than that as capitulation. This is particularly true when we consider that the Senate may be able to tinker with the sequestration rather than just pass a clean CR at House levels of spending. It might involve trading a little increase in military spending for a little spending elsewhere, but something could be devised that wouldn’t blow up Boehner’s ability to deliver roughly 180 votes. That’s probably the sweet spot that could avoid a shutdown on acceptable terms.

In any case, the White House has to at least pretend that it is open to such a scenario, for appearances sake if nothing else.

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