Politics & Policy

The Speaker’s Slog

Battling opponents on both sides of the aisle, Boehner struggles to avert a shutdown.

There were no tears, just cheers, when Speaker John Boehner announced his latest fiscal strategy on Saturday at a closed-door conference meeting. Even Boehner’s longtime critics praised him for pushing a government-spending bill that also delayed Obamacare for one year and repealed the medical-device tax.

Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, an outspoken sophomore and a participant in January’s failed coup attempt against Boehner, strolled to the microphone, glanced at Boehner, and said, “Thank you.” The speaker turned to his members — if Amash was all in, he chuckled, he was probably making a mistake.

#ad#House Republicans, though, reassured Boehner — especially the conservatives. Chants of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” echoed through the room. Standing in the back, Boehner’s deputies watched the scene and smiled. “People went bonkers,” says Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona. Representative John Culberson of Texas was so enthused that he yelled, “Let’s roll!” after hearing Boehner’s remarks. Culberson later told reporters he was alluding to the cry of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer.

But near the end of the meeting, as a shutdown loomed, the gathering began to take on a surreal air. And by Sunday night, pangs of fear were replacing those good spirits for many in the GOP. With a shutdown imminent, Boehner and his allies were scrambling to craft another eleventh-hour plan, following the House’s Saturday passage of Boehner’s legislation and the Senate’s quick rejection. Publicly, the House GOP is united behind a blame-the-Senate defense; privately, many Republicans are nervous.

Unless Boehner finds a way out, the first federal government shutdown since 1996 is scheduled to occur at midnight on Monday — an outcome that, if mishandled, could put the House GOP’s 17-seat majority into play. Boehner’s grip over his conference is being tested, as is his ability to navigate a deeply divided government.

One rising option being bandied about in the GOP cloakroom: a continuing resolution that includes the Vitter Amendment, which would eliminate Obamacare subsidies for congressional employees. Another option is a short-term CR that simply extends the debate. “There are a lot of items on the table,” said Republican whip Kevin McCarthy of California on Fox News Sunday. “We are not shutting the government down.”

But that plan, a short-term CR with the Vitter Amendment, isn’t gaining much traction, since most of the House’s right flank is unwilling to sign off on any compromise that doesn’t delay Obamacare. “Hope he doesn’t do that,” warns Louie Gohmert of Texas, a Boehner opponent, when we mention a short-term CR. “That’d be a problem.”

#page#The defiant positioning by conservatives puts Boehner in a difficult situation: He wants to pass another CR that wins the support of a majority of his conference, but there’s nothing in his arsenal that is guaranteed heavy GOP support. His hope of getting 218 Republicans behind a revised CR before a shutdown occurs is dimming by the hour. And if he can’t broker a deal by late Monday, a shutdown will be unavoidable.

#ad#Large numbers of House Republicans, while not exactly rooting for a shutdown, certainly feel comfortable with the idea of stopping Obamacare at all costs. “I feel like it’s my duty as a congressman to mitigate the damage that Obamacare is doing to the country,” says Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas. “I’m going to do what my heart tells me is the right thing to do. And I think my constituents in South Texas are behind me.”

Other House conservatives concur and seem ready to cast Senate majority leader Harry Reid as the villain. “I think the ball will firmly be in Harry Reid’s court,” says Michael Burgess of Texas. “If he wants to shut it down, that’s his business.” Adds Tom Cotton of Arkansas: “If Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats would stop being so stubborn, he’d recognize that the president has already delayed the mandate on businesses.”

The leadership, however, is worried about the likely public takeaway from any shutdown: Leaders fear that national press would harp on Republicans’ supposed intransigence rather than the Senate’s responsibility. Boehner’s contingent seems almost resigned to the mutual suspicion between the leadership and a group of about 30 conservative members. Sources say distrust is as high as it’s been since Republicans won the House in 2010, and they predict that a sizable bloc would obstruct any watered-down plan.

That aura of Republican infighting will create an interesting dynamic if Tuesday morning comes without an accord. While Boehner and other leaders will be defending the GOP’s position in front of the cameras, there may be a subtle effort to use the episode — and what many expect to be its disastrous political results — as a means of discrediting the hardliners who give the speaker headaches. Conservatives, meanwhile, will try to show that the tactic is helping focus public attention on Obamacare.

 “It may have to shut down,” says a veteran House Republican, when asked about how the drama will unfold. “Until people feel the political pain, I doubt we can come together on anything. Boehner knows that, probably more than anyone.”

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor. Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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