House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) may have sacrificed his speaker’s gavel to keep the government open through the week. But the path that lies ahead for his successor is much trickier. Even if lawmakers, as expected, pass a short-term spending bill this week, they face a series of other deadlines before the end of the year that could converge into one giant showdown fueled by freshly emboldened hardliners who see compromise as defeat.
“It is setting up a very major set of hurdles for the next majority leader come the middle of December,” Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who worked for the U.S. Senate for 25 years, told TPM. “How they make this silk purse out of a sow’s ear is going to be very, very difficult.”
Once lawmakers clear this week’s Wednesday night deadline to pass funding legislation that will last the government until December, they must pivot to a number of other must-pass issues which lack either bipartisan consensus or, in some cases, any consensus among Hill Republicans themselves.
From highway funding to raising the debt ceiling to funding the government in 2016, Congress faces huge unresolved issues that have been roadblocked by conservative demands to defund Planned Parenthood. With just three months left in the year and the 2016 election calendar looming, the stage is set for a series of major confrontations unless some sort of global deal is worked out, which doesn’t appear any more likely with Boehner out of the picture.
Immediately next on the agenda is funding the highway trust fund, the deadline for which comes at the end of October. The Congressional Budget Office has signaled that the debt ceiling will need to be lifted by late November or early December, which remains a particular flashpoint for conservative hardliners who see a possible credit default as an opportunity to extract spending cuts.
“The last thing this country needs is a fight over the debt ceiling right before Christmas,“ said Jim Dyer, a former appropriations staff director and now a Republican strategist at the Podesta Group. “It’s more about a difficult political position than it as about anything because the vote is hard for a lot of folks.”
Lawmakers will also have a series of “tax extenders” in need of reauthorization on their hands by the year’s end. And there is also the debate around the reopening of the Export-Import Bank, which, to the delight of Tea Party politicians, expired over the summer but continues to be supported by business-aligned Republicans as well as Democrats.
All these deadlines bleed into when Congress will have to return to the federal budget, after the current stopgap legislation being considered runs out on Dec. 11. Before the controversy over Planned Parenthood’s federal funding prompted shutdown calls, Hill Republicans and the White House were deeply divided on how to deal with the “sequestration” budget caps put in place in 2011 after the last debt ceiling showdown. Nevertheless, the conservatives who pressed for Boehner’s departure see that 2011 showdown as a victory because it brought about budget caps, which are opposed not just by Democrats but defense-friendly Republicans.
The high stakes and crowded calendar is likely to be a baptism by fire for the new House speaker — with current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the leading contender — and the rest of the leadership team which will shake out in elections in the weeks to come. While Boehner’s resignation announcement may have staved off a shutdown in the immediate future, it doesn’t change the underlying structural problems plaguing the House GOP, and arguably makes the internal political divisions worse.
“I think it’s like throwing raw meat to some of these people. They’re not going to see it as a gesture of peace, they’re just going to look for more,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on CNN last week. “It’s a signal that the crazies have taken over the party.”
The dynamics that led to Boehner’s demise remain unchanged and if anything have given recalcitrant conservatives — often associated with the House Freedom Caucus — a greater sense of power.
“How does a new speaker, who will be facing a Freedom Caucus in the Tea Party who think they just knocked off a speaker after knocking off a majority leader and can do it again if they want, how do you get a speaker who can go through that maze and come out looking whole?” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and executive vice president at Qorvis MSL Group.
The coming obstacles will be a test for a future leader who may feel that, as one conservative lawmaker put it, his head is next on the chopping block
“It’s hard to know what approach a new person is going to take,” Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told TPM. “Will that person feel like they’ll need to take a harder line because they’re just coming into office or will they feel like it’s in their interest to reach a compromise to show that Republicans in Congress are capable of governing?”
The chaos could have ripple effects outside the lower chamber. House conservatives have now trained their sights on Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who they believe should blow up the filibuster so they can push their agenda past objecting Democrats. While they might not be able to push out McConnell directly, their anti-establishment message is being embraced by at least some of the four Republican senators running for president.
“If they deny McConnell four votes, he won’t have a majority anymore,” Collender noted.
The sort of brinkmanship politics espoused by hardliners cuts against not just what Americans in general want, but also the wishes of Republican voters: According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, 56 percent of Republicans said Planned Parenthood was not worth shutting down the government over. If their antics consume the fall, it could color the 2016 race as well, ironically making it even harder for Republicans to push their agenda in the long term.
“They’re driving a huge wedge in the Republican Party, and that wedge probably means they’re going to put Republicans into a minority status, either in the next election or for some time to come,” Hoagland said.
But a political victory for Democrats in the long-run won’t ease the pain of the next few months.
“November and December are going to be like Dante’s ‘Inferno’ around here,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) told the New York Times.