Shutting Down a Shutdown
Inside how House GOP leaders are trying to avoid one

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (left) and Speaker John Boehner


Robert Costa

Since the moment the idea was floated by a handful of conservative lawmakers, House Republican leaders have been wary of the tea-party plan to shut down the federal government this fall unless Obamacare is defunded. Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, a veteran of the Gingrich wars, has never been eager to go there, nor has Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. But they didn’t immediately storm out of their offices and nix the pitch. Instead, due to the fragility of the bonds holding the House GOP together, they have labored behind the scenes, pouring cold water in careful measure on their colleagues’ boiling brinksmanship. By late last week, House insiders say Boehner and Cantor had talked much of their conference away from the edge. “No one is advocating a government shutdown,” Cantor assured me on Friday.

Keeping the roiling House GOP united and away from the shutdown temptation in the weeks ahead won’t be easy, especially as the Beltway’s ever-increasing crowd of conservative organizations prod Republicans to shut down the government as a statement of principle. But my cloakroom sources tell me they’re now confident that House Republicans will not tread into a shutdown battle with the Obama White House. GOP firebrands may threaten a shutdown and theatrically insist it remains an option, but the party’s private appetite for one, even among the right flank, is dissipating. “The electorate expects Congress to govern,” explains pollster David Winston, a longtime adviser to the House leadership. “House Republicans are going to offer their health-care alternatives within that process.”

The House leadership’s aversion to the tea-party plan is driven not only by strategy but also by the fear that having a debate on tactics would devolve into a Republican civil war. Boehner and Cantor, in conversations with fellow members, have reportedly warned that a shutdown would almost undoubtedly end in intraparty strife, owing to the Senate’s Democratic majority. To pass a vote on defunding Obamacare, Republicans would need 14 Senate Democrats to join them, and if Democrats declined, all blame, the thinking goes, would fall back on the House GOP for refusing to pass legislation to fund federal services. In all likelihood, Republicans would then be pressured to rush through a continuing resolution, only to get hit with recriminations and chaos in the wake of a shutdown.

“A shutdown? It’s not happening, it’s really not, but I guess you won’t hear people say that out loud, including me,” chuckles a senior House Republican. “No one, you see, wants to be ‘out-toughed’ on Obamacare. We’re out here talking about repeal everyday. But the speaker and everybody else here know that the Senate votes, unfortunately, will never be there to pass a continuing resolution to defund Obamacare.”

This delicate political situation has forced Boehner and Cantor to work against the shutdown caucus but without antagonizing it. It’s a wink-wink kabuki dance of the highest order. They can’t alienate their conservative members who have been enthralled by the shutdown talk of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, but they can’t have them dictating the fiscal negotiations, either. “Look, we want to protect the American people from Obamacare, and we’ll look at any realistic strategy to do that,” says a leadership aide. “Right now, though, no one seems to able to explain how we win a shutdown fight. Until that changes, it doesn’t make any sense to have one.”