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September 27, 2013 8:50 AM How John Boehner Might Avoid a Government Shutdown

By Jonathan Bernstein

Information is starting to emerge about what the House is going to try to do in the next few weeks. Nothing is certain, especially the details, but the broad outline is fairly clear now.

What’s John Boehner up to? Remember, my view is that he’s trying to avoid a shutdown or debt limit breach (because the situation for him gets worse post-deadline than pre-deadline) while at the same time keeping his conference from blaming him for anything. At least privately; one of the costs I assume he’s willing to accept is for many of them to blame him publicly for things they actually want him to do. But that has to be done sparingly. If he consistently “sells out” mainstream conservatives, even if they want him to, at some point they won’t be able to sustain it and will have to get rid of him for the pretense to work.

This is not an easy position for him.

So in response, he’s preparing a series of votes that is intended, apparently, to keep all those balls in the air at the same time. He has to win each of these votes, but not always with the same voting coalition. And remember, he’s already won the initial vote on the defunding-included Continuing Resolution (CR), which keeps the government operating for the meantime. Remaining:

* A CR retreat bill.

Proposed voting coalition: Ideally, for Boehner, it’s a unanimous GOP plus a fair-sized chunk of Democrats. The CR retreat bill would be a “clean” CR (sequestration funding levels), still to mid-December, and would also include face-savers, perhaps including repealing the medical device tax and prohibiting Members and staff from getting subsidies on the exchanges.

Problems: if it’s not a full surrender, which it apparently won’t be, then conservatives are going to push for just a little more…which will drive away Democrats, risking (1) that the bill might fail in the House if the Crazy Caucus votes no without Obamacare defunding, or (2) that the Senate sends it back with everything stripped out again.

* Possible short-term CR extentsion(s)

Proposed voting coalition: the entire House. Leadership was floating a one-week CR yesterday afternoon; the idea would be to leave time for a proper (ha!) 10 week CR. Everyone should be willing to live with it, unless Cruz’s allies decide it’s a trick to get a long-term clean CR a bit at a time.

* Possible 3rd try at a CR

Proposed voting coalition: Majorities of both parties? This one shows up if the CR retreat bill winds up passing on a partisan vote and the Senate sends back a clean (or cleaner) one a second time. Boehner’s hope has to be that at this point he can find a majority vote from both parties, perhaps by paring down the extras again (a totally clean one would presumably need mostly Democratic votes). Perhaps by now his conference is convinced to finally accept the win on funding levels, or just sick enough of it that they’re willing to vote to get it over with.

* Christmas Tree debt limit bill.

Proposed voting coalition: Full GOP conference. This appears to be a bill filled with goodies for everyone in the GOP conference; it should pass with little trouble on a party-line vote.

* Debt limit surrender

Proposed voting coalition: This is where Boehner’s going to have to violate Hastert, with every Democrat and a small number of Republicans averting a debt limit breech and accepting a clean debt limit increase that the Senate will send back to them. Maybe, if Boehner is really lucky, he can find something like forcing a vote on the budget (that the Senate wanted to take) as a fig leaf on this one, although it won’t fool anyone.

* Possibly more: it’s possible that they’ll ping-pong the debt limit multiple times; it’s possible that there could be a short-term debt limit increase (yes, they can do that).

Okay, I think that’s it.

Can he pull it off?

If you squint just hard enough…it really could be possible. Each step along the way seems plausible, doesn’t it? Boehner has been preparing his conference for a surrender on the CR for a while now; they got to take a defunding vote and send it to the Senate, where they can blame its failure on either Ted Cruz (for those looking for the sane primary vote) or Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and the rest of the squishes (for everyone else). The pitch, from Boehner is to transfer the demands from CR to debt limit, preparing for the CR retreat votes. Then all that’s left is to capitulate on the debt limit with a Hastert violation after the Senate sends back a clean debt limit extension.

I think the key to this whole thing is to get a majority of Republicans agreeing to whatever the final (until December) CR might be. If Boehner can manage that, then it’s only one Hastert violation in the whole sequence — only one bill where Boehner probably has to take a lot of (public) blame from mainstream conservatives.

Granted, it could blow up in any number of ways.

But it avoids the procedure that could win better results but that Tea Partiers won’t all: striking a deal with the White House. The best thing about this whole strategy is that Boehner can, if the votes line up right, get through the entire thing with absolutely no negotiation with Harry Reid, Barack Obama, or Nancy Pelosi.

Notice that one of the things he’s doing here is that since negotiating is forbidden, he’s using the first run at these bills not to establish a negotiating position, but to give his conference an opportunity for position-taking. That’s the way to understand the Christmas tree debt limit bill they’re preparing; knowing that eventually they’ll have to settle for little or nothing, this way Republicans in the House get to declare what they were for before the Senate (and, perhaps, Boehner) sold them out.

Oh, and remember: there’s still a rest-of-the-year CR that they’ll have to do in November or December — and that’s the one that Democrats are claiming that they’re going to fight on.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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