A chaotic fall awaits Capitol Hill when lawmakers return to Washington in two weeks and face imminent fiscal deadlines to avoid sending the economy into a tailspin.
The spotlight is on Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who faces perhaps his toughest test yet as he tries to talk rebellious House Republicans out of risking a government shutdown or worse. Instead he’s floating a potentially riskier strategy: pass a short-term funding resolution, preserve sequestration and take the debt ceiling hostage to goals like unwinding Obamacare and cutting spending.On Oct. 1, funding for the federal government will expire. And later this fall, the U.S. will default on its obligations unless Congress raises the borrowing limit, or debt ceiling. Averting these two cliffs will be one of the more daunting tasks facing a wildly dysfunctional Congress and a fractured Republican Party.
“It reinforces all the reasons why I thought it was a good time to retire at the beginning of the year,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), a friend and ally of Boehner, told TPM in a recent interview. “Because it looks like deja vu all over again. The same fights, the same cast of characters and the same unwillingness to find common ground.”
Indeed, Boehner in particular faces various obstacles in trying to placate his right wing.
First, President Obama and Democratic leaders have made clear they won’t negotiate over the debt limit. Back in January, when Democrats demanded a clean hike in the borrowing authority, Boehner acquiesced to lifting the limit without substantive concessions but rather a kabuki dance that ended in the Senate passing a nonbinding budget resolution.
Second, the conservative base is currently animated by the goal of using the impending fiscal deadlines to defund Obamacare. Influential conservative advocates have mobilized on behalf of this goal during the August recess. And a significant faction of congressional Republicans has threatened shutdown or worse if Obamacare isn’t defunded.
“You have this little cabal who’s going to vote no no matter what [the budget agreement is]. And that makes it awful difficult to find a path forward. … So the leadership continues to have the same challenge,” said LaTourette, who now heads up the lobbying firm McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies. He suspected that House Republican leaders will need Democratic votes to pass any government funding resolution.
Third, conservative House Republicans have made clear they will not vote to raise the borrowing limit without major concessions like securing dollar-for-dollar spending cuts, ideally by slashing Medicare, Social Security or Obamacare.
“If Republican leaders are going to be all tied up again with the debt ceiling and government showdowns, that really is a big negative,” said Steve Bell, a well-connected former Senate GOP budget aide who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We went through this with Clinton. I was in the room when we did this. And it isn’t going to be blamed on the President.”
But how will Boehner quiet the conservative outcry and avert default? Congressional insiders are stumped by the question, but here are some possibilities.
One option, shaping up to be Boehner’s big stand in the upcoming battles, is to preserve sequestration — the automatic cuts passed in 2011. If Democrats want to replace those cuts to scientific research and other programs, they’ll have to accept “better cuts and reforms” that lead to a balanced budget, he told his members.
“The president is desperate to get rid of the sequester … so desperate that he says he’ll shut down the government if Congress follows the law and funds the government at the levels his sequester mandates,” Boehner told House Republicans last Thursday on a conference call. “The president’s threat to shut down the government if we implement his sequester is not a defensible position. The American people won’t stand for it, and we’re not going to be swayed by it. When we return, our intent is to move quickly on a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that keeps the government running and maintains current sequester spending levels. Our message will remain clear: until the president agrees to better cuts and reforms that help grow the economy and put us on path to a balanced budget, his sequester — the sequester he himself proposed, insisted on, and signed into law — stays in place.”
A second option is to establish a Senate vote on a Republican-led bill to delay or defund Obamacare. It might be the House-passed GOP bill to delay the law’s individual mandate for a year. That would let House Republicans say they’re on offense against Obamacare, and give the Senate GOP a weapon to attack vulnerable red state Democrats in the 2014 elections, when they hope to win back the majority.
A virtually infinite number of permutations are possible on a seemingly bold (but actually insignificant) vote to delay, disrupt or dismantle Obamacare. Senate Democrats would vote down virtually all of them, and any political liability may conceivably be a price worth paying to simultaneously avoid default and tame the conservative rebellion.
A third option, as sketched out by New York Times reporter John Harwood, would be to link the debt limit hike to tax reform. Here the procedure gets tricky because the two sides are too deeply divided on even the basic shape of tax reform for it to be a necessary prerequisite to avert default. So a likelier possibility would be to approve instructions for tax-writing committees, or perhaps a newly created committee, to move forward with an overhaul of the tax code and at least kick-start the effort.
However the debate plays out, Congress will have to start working quickly. When lawmakers return on Sept. 9, they will have just nine working days before a shutdown. Given the short time frame, the Senate will probably have to swallow a two- or three-month stopgap resolution of the sort that Boehner is eying.
“In the Republican caucus, there are significant internal divisions,” Bell said. “The House gets most of the attention because it’s pretty melodramatic. But the Senate Republican caucus is absolutely just as tough.” The former budget aide suggested that that there may be a combination of spending cuts and user fee increases — not tax revenues — to avert parts of the sequester, such as the additional automatic cuts set to target Medicare providers and certain extended benefits for other safety net programs on Oct. 1.
Despite the extraordinary challenges he has faced, Boehner has always found a way to avert shutdown, default and fiscal crisis at every juncture since he became Speaker. And he isn’t likely to permit default, come what may. The question is whether he succeeds in bringing his members aboard or whether he’s forced to lift the debt ceiling with mostly Democratic votes, a move that would severely damage his standing as Speaker. He’s broken the majority-of-the-majority principle (also known as the Hastert Rule) several times this year on less catastrophic issues than default, such as avoiding tax hikes and renewing the Violence Against Women Act. Boehner would be hard-pressed to abide by the Hastert Rule in this situation and in fact hasn’t committed to doing so.