By most accounts, House Speaker John Boehner has a thankless task. Some think the government has shut down for the past week and a catastrophic default may be on the way partly because the Ohio Republican cannot successfully corral the extreme right wingers in his caucus.
But the more that Boehner talks about his strategy – or lack thereof – the more he seems to be shattering his own credibility with a slew of contradictions.
Key case in point: Over the weekend, Boehner effectively acknowledged making a deal with Senate Democrats to avoid using the threat of a government shutdown to try to undermine Obamacare. The Democrats would accept the equivalent of $70 billion in spending cuts, while Boehner could claim to have reduced the size of government without slogging through a toxic round of negotiations.
Yet the speaker conceded in an interview with ABC News that conservative Tea Party members persuaded him to change his mind and use the spending talks as a fulcrum to defund Obamacare. “Working with my members, they decided, ‘Well, let’s do it now,’” Boehner said in the interview broadcast on Sunday.
This and other contradictions raise basic questions about Boehner’s leadership—and whether he is a captive of the most conservative elements of the GOP conference, or their chief enabler. His actions give credence to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s lament that Boehner “just can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
Boehner is now pushing President Obama to negotiate over the shutdown and the expiring debt ceiling, but only after six months of stiff-arming the Senate Democrats onreconciling their dueling budget proposals. Even if Boehner manages to bring Obama to the bargaining table, his own credibility appears to be so damaged that it undercuts his ability to assemble a deal.
“It makes almost any kind of arrangement that you can work out tarnished when you have this back and forth,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the impact from Boehner’s contradictions.
Boehner’s press secretary Michael Steel said that his boss’ credibility remains intact, noting that the Democratic offer of $70 billion in spending cuts was not a concession because it corresponded with the reductions from the sequester in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
With the partial government closure entering its eighth day on Tuesday, the dueling sides seem no closer to a solution than when the crisis started. In fact, the federal bureaucracy appears to be readying for an extended stalemate.
More than 400,000 furloughed employees at the Defense Department began returning to work on the orders of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Senate later this week is expected to approve back pay for the other 400,000 furloughed workers who will continue to stay away from work, a measure already approved unanimously by the House.
Beyond that, the showdown has evolved into a messaging battle between the president and Boehner, who now faces a rebellion from pragmatists in his caucus who are hankering for a deal.
The House speaker is calling for Obama to simply talk about their differences. The president has refused to negotiate over temporarily funding the government and the debt ceiling, a move that Boehner has portrayed as needlessly stubborn.
“The American people expect that when their leaders have differences . . . in a time of crisis, that we’ll sit down and at least have a conversation,” Boehner said on the House floor on Monday. “Really, Mr. President, it’s time to have that conversation before our economy is put further at risk.”
Of course, Boehner wants more than casual chatter in the Oval Office. He has subtly shifted his call for gutting Obamacare to finding an agreement that would control Social Security and Medicare costs.
Obama ramped up the public pressure to force Boehner into allowing the House to vote on a temporary spending bill with no strings attached. “My very strong suspicion is that there are enough votes there,” the president said at an appearance at a FEMA office in Washington. “Hold a vote. Call a vote right now. Let’s see what happens.”
Boehner maintains that no such support exists for a clean continuing resolution, a highly questionable claim. “There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR,” he told ABC News.
The Washington Post—among other outlets—found that there are 195 Democrats and 22 Republicans who have publicly stated their support for a clean CR, enough votes for the measure to barely pass.
At the same time, Boehner also undermined claims that he would accept a clean increase in the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, essentially denying a report in The New York Times last week based on comments from an anonymous Republican congressman that the speaker would work with Democrats to prevent a potential default.
The general assumption is that roughly 30 Tea Party-style congressmen overruled any chance Boehner had to make a deal before the shutdown. Determined to keep his party united, he bowed to their interest of risking a default to stop the implementation of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
That strategy failed. It led to a partial government closure and fueled fears of a potential default this month, while failing to prevent the Obamacare health insurance exchanges from opening last week.
“When you walk down a blind alley with no way out, it makes it rather difficult to figure how to get out,” one veteran GOP strategist explained yesterday. “I don’t know what his thinking is at the moment, but I think he is in an almost impossible situation.”
But to a large degree, Boehner has also led himself down this particular alley.
It began with legislative choices that either infuriated or appeased Tea Party congressmen, yet always somehow managed to empower the raucous backbenchers.
When Boehner voted with Democrats to raise tax rates on wealthier Americans—the fiscal cliff deal that avoided rate hikes for everyone—many of these lawmakers responded by trying to overthrow his speakership at the start of this year.
Any attempt to impose discipline backfired against this group of conservatives with grassroots momentum and safe congressional districts. Boehner had fundraising clout and more than two decades in the House, but none of the energy that gave the GOP control of the House in 2010.
Boehner and his leadership team began to embrace their agenda after a party retreat this year in Williamsburg, VA, starting with a budget plan that balanced in 10 years by eliminating all Obamacare expenditures.
House Republicans dared the Senate to pass its own budget, something the chamber had not done in years. But when the Senate did succeed in passing a budget that contained tax increases, Republicans refused to convene a conference committee between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray to reconcile their differences unless it was on terms that gave them a leg up in talks.
“It is traditional for the House and Senate Budget chairs to agree to a framework before a formal conference committee,” Steel, the speaker’s spokesman, said yesterday. “Chairman Ryan and Sen. Murray have been having those conversations, but it’s clear Sen. Reid is not willing to let Sen. Murray negotiate a large agreement.”
Ironically, after six months of stiff-arming a conference committee on the budget, House Republicans sought one on the eve of the shutdown. The Democrats saw little incentive to engage in talks. This has left Boehner and Republicans moving with piecemeal measures for funding organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, but no direction as to how Boehner can be faithful to his past statements and avoid the economic calamity of a shutdown and a default.
“My sympathy for him begins to dissipate when I look at a strategy that is basically to mollify and enable the most extreme elements of caucus,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Ornstein. “Unlike some of the other occasions where there was a strategy going into it with an endgame, there is no endgame here.”