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.
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.”
A key date in the leadership’s nearly month-long effort was Wednesday, July 31, one of the last days before the House adjourned for the August recess. Two important things happened within an eight-hour period: Boehner calmed the waters at a conference meeting, and Cantor met with conservative leaders over lunch. The net effect of these gestures was to give Republican power brokers, inside and outside Congress, a coherent, if unofficial, understanding of the leadership’s position before members headed home — and before the chatter became a clamor.
In the early morning, Boehner went before House Republicans for a closed-door session in the Capitol basement and outlined his approach. It was Boehner’s most direct statement in weeks about the “defund or shutdown” discussion. He pulled the focus away from the tactic of using shutdown as leverage for defunding the law and argued instead for “well-placed, targeted strikes that will ultimately dissolve the Obamacare coalition,” such as the recent votes to delay the employer mandate and the individual mandate, both of which won scattered support from House Democrats. “We’ll have to stick together and communicate,” he said. “But this strategy is achievable. And it’s our best shot at actually getting rid of Obamacare.”
According to sources in the room, there were a few murmurs of disapproval at Boehner’s shift away from the tea-party plan, but Boehner pressed on, in his usual Ohio grumble, and said that deciding against a shutdown isn’t a sign of weakness. “Executing this strategy doesn’t mean we can’t do other things on Obamacare,” he said. “This is designed to be a strategy we can build on.” Afterward, several members, notably a group of centrist Republicans from targeted districts, approached Boehner and his inner circle and thanked them for trying to usher the party away from a shutdown. Now, Boehner never said anything explicitly about a shutdown, and he never named names, but to the older members, many of whom had lived through the 1995 shutdown, the message was clear.
Members were also buzzing about the leadership’s emerging strategy for the autumn talks. Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit. As members huddled and talked through scenarios, leadership aides reminded them that since the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year, the plan has been to end the year with a debt-limit chess game, and not a messy continuing-resolution impasse. But the aides didn’t press too hard. As Boehner knows all too well from past struggles, it often takes only 20 to 30 irritated Republicans to destroy his best-laid plans.
Later Wednesday, around noon, Cantor headed to the Weyrich lunch, an off-the-record gathering of conservative-movement leaders chaired by Morton Blackwell, the president of the Leadership Institute. Cantor reiterated what Boehner had told the conference that morning, and he talked about the shutdown question in a clinical way, telling the conservatives that he was with them on tearing apart and delaying the law wherever possible, but he didn’t want to risk the House GOP’s political capital on an unwinnable play for Senate votes. If the votes for defunding somehow emerged, he said, he would bring such a continuing resolution to the floor; but if the votes were not there, he’d advise against it.
There was disappointment at the Weyrich lunch, just as there was disappointment in the Capitol basement. But there was no uproar. A day later, on August 1, the “Big Four,” as the group of four top-ranking House Republicans is known, met to go over the events of the previous day and the state of play, pre-recess. Boehner reflected on the relative peace of the conference meeting, and Cantor relayed stories from his lunch. Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and conference chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington relayed what they were hearing from members. The consensus from the Big Four was that they’d keep moving ahead with their soft push to avoid a shutdown. They’ll aim to nudge the GOP caucus in this direction, and hope members will see it their way once the House reconvenes.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.