Can John Boehner Convince Republicans to Compromise on the Budget?

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John Boehner, who often meets the press flanked by a team of deputies, took the podium alone on Thursday. With a week left before the government shuts down April 8, the House Speaker took pains to dispel rumors of a deal. “There is no agreement” on a pact that would cut $33 billion from the federal budget, Boehner insisted, despite Vice President Joe Biden’s assertion to the contrary Wednesday night. “Here’s the bottom line,” the House Speaker said. “Democrats are rooting for a government shutdown. We’re listening to the people who sent us here to cut spending.”

The people aren’t so sure. As the Speaker held forth, some 200 Tea Party activists began gathering Thursday in the shadow of the Capitol. As usual, they came to deliver an ultimatum: House Republicans will meet their promises or pay the price. “They’ve heard us,” Tea Party Patriots’ co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told the crowd. “But they are not listening.”

Their ranks thinned by a raw drizzle, the boisterous protesters performed their familiar routine—twirling flags, singing patriotic hymns and brandishing signs ranging from cheeky (“Taxation With Representation Ain’t Much Fun Either”) to defiant (“HR 1 Not Extreme Enough”) to exploitive (a young girl carried a placard reading “Congress, Why Don’t You Care About Me?”). And while they assigned the bulk of the blame for the budget impasse to Senate Democrats and President Obama, they sneered at the notion that slashing $33 billion over the next six months would cure the country’s fiscal woes. “I want to say this to Speaker Boehner: man up,” says Helene Kerns, a retired government worker from Paw Paw, W. Va., who wore a yellow Mountaineers poncho and held a sign urging Congress to “Grow a Spine.” Others roared with approval when speakers raised the specter of a government shutdown.

This is the tightrope Boehner is walking as he tries to navigate the first of three successive skirmishes over the federal budget. An overwhelming majority of Americans want House Republicans and Senate Democrats to strike a deal that keeps the government’s lights on. But any pact Boehner can broker risks running afoul of the movement that helped propel his party to power–not to mention many of his own members.

Though he praised the Tea Party on Thursday, appeasing them isn’t Boehner’s chief concern. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that just 32% of respondents had a favorable view of the movement, down from 37% in December. Still, a wide swath of Boehner’s conference buys into the Tea Party’s parsimony. An agreement that lops off anything less than the $61 billion House Republicans promised during the campaign – or one stripped of several controversial policy riders — will spur some GOP defections, perhaps enough to force the House Speaker to court moderate Democrats in order to pass it.

For a second straight day, the fractious GOP freshmen held a press conference to blast Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for playing politics with the prospect of a shutdown. But it’s not just the rookies who are boxing Boehner into a corner. Despite the weather, several seasoned Tea Party favorites strolled across the street to toss red meat to the hungry crowd. “It’s time to pick a fight,” declared Indiana’s Mike Pence, who said if Democrats are unwilling to make “a small down payment” on spending cuts, “I say shut it down.” Applause rippled through the crowd, who broke into a “Cut it or Shut it” chant.

“We have never said we want to see the government shut down,” said Michele Bachmann. “What we want to see is a true fight.” Boehner is getting one from both sides. Fellow Buckeye Jim Jordan, head of the conservative caucus of Republicans that helped nudge HR 1’s tally up to $61 billion, said that at a Thursday meeting there was “strong support” for holding firm to that figure. Others, like Bachmann, suggested riders like defunding Planned Parenthood and health-care reform were crucial sticking points. “I draw the line when it comes to funding Obamacare,” says Iowa Rep. Steve King, who noted that 54 Republicans rebelled against this year’s second stopgap funding measure. He predicted more defections this time around if a provision to choke off funding for Congressional Democrats’ signature legislation is excised.

It’s impossible at this point to gauge how deep the rift will run. “It’s hard to support or oppose that $33 billion without knowing what’s in the plan,” says a House GOP aide, who expects that as long as the deal includes many of the riders tacked onto the Republican bill, “there would be enough votes to pass it, even it falls short of desired cuts.”

But not everyone is ready to move on. On Friday House Republicans will take up a bill that would declare HR 1 law if the Senate fails to pass its own continuing resolution within the next five days. Dubbed the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act,” the bill is purely symbolic; no measure can become law without passing the Senate and securing the signature of the President. But it underlines the difficulty Boehner has in wrangling enough votes for a compromise. And it’s particularly telling that the bill’s sponsor, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has crafted a piece of political theater that highlights the gap between his boss and many of the rank-and-file.

For his part, Boehner reminded reporters Thursday that Republicans control just one-half of one branch of government, and said he would continue to agitate for as many spending cuts as possible. Pressed about the prospect of a rebellion, he said he was “not very interested” in splitting with his Tea Party wing. If he wants to keep the government open, he may have to.

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