Boehner’s Choice

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John Boehner has a decision to make. And in some ways it’s akin to choosing between his children. By midnight tonight the government will shut down unless an agreement can be reached between the Speaker and President Obama. Whatever Boehner decides will have long-reaching implications for his Speakership.

Ideally, Boehner would have preferred extending government funding by another week but Obama threatened to veto such a bill and the Democratically-controlled Senate declared it a “non-starter,” as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it. Boehner can, and has, made the case that the onus to prevent a shutdown was on Democrats – that he gave them a bipartisan option that they rejected (15 House Democrats voted for the measure). Sure, the extension came with a steep price tag, but negotiators had already agreed to the $12 billion in cuts. The bill would’ve also funded the military for the rest of the year, a move most in Congress would readily endorse with so many troops in harm’s way. As of last night 51 senators, including a handful of Democrats, had co-sponsored similar legislation. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, put Boehner’s bill on the Senate schedule late last night, but it’s unlikely the extension will come up for a vote unless a broader agreement is reached.

Reid made it clear yesterday that he’d reached the end of short-term extensions.  There have been seven since Democrats last year failed to pass a 2011 budget. After the midterm elections, each extension came with increasingly painful cuts. Democrats, Reid argued, have already agreed to more cuts than the $34 billion first proposed in the House. Senate Dems upped their offer yesterday to $34.5 billion – more than half of the $61 billion House Republicans ultimately demanded — including $3 billion in Pentagon cuts approved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “They’re not taking yes for an answer on these spending cuts,” says a Senate Democratic aide. “Now they’re digging in their heels on these extreme riders. If they shut down the government over this, it will be viewed as overreach.”

The sticking point is not really about funding the government any more. The original bill passed by the House came with hundreds of controversial riders attached to it. Boehner is pushing for riders in three specific areas: on abortion, particularly efforts to defund Planned Parenthood (though it should be noted that the group does not use federal money to fund abortions); efforts to defund the Environmental Protections Agency’s greenhouse gas, mountaintop mining and Chesapeake Bay regulations; and amendments to block implementation of health care reform. Democrats have drawn the line at any riders that wouldn’t garner enough votes to pass the Senate as a standalone bill, which rules out almost all of the dozen riders Boehner is seeking. Efforts to strengthen the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funding for abortions, failed in the Senate during the health care debate. Republican attempts to repeal health care reform failed the Senate early this year and a GOP bid to defund the EPA’s climate change regulations flopped in the Upper Chamber just this week. “Voters will not understand why Congress couldn’t come to an agreement,” says Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush. “Democrats will exploit that for political advantage. The Republicans have gotten more than half of what they asked for. Best strategy would be to declare victory.”

Reid, Boehner and Obama met last night and their staffs spent a second bleary-eyed all-nighter in a row working on a compromise. Obama postponed his planned trip to Indiana and another meeting was set for this morning. “We’re going to work through the night to attempt to resolve the remaining issues and the remaining issues are extremely narrow,” Reid said on the floor of the Senate last night. “I’m not really confident, but I’m very, very hopeful.” Meanwhile, the federal government began preparations for the potential furlough of nearly a million employees in the event of a shut down.

With a temporary solution effectively blocked, Boehner now has a choice before him: allow the government to shut down and become a hero to his freshmen and Tea Party conservatives (“Shut it down,” chanted Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, on the House floor yesterday), or compromise with the White House and become enemy No. 1 to much of his own conference. Boehner’s brinksmanship with Democrats certainly wrangled more cuts than many expected could be had, but he’s bound to lose dozens from his right flank on any deal less than the $61 billion the House passed. He lost 54 of his impatient flock on the last extension even with significant cuts attached to it. Allowing a shut down might make his conference easier to manage, but the risk that the Party could be blamed for overreach is great. Compromising would make governing harder for Boehner at a time, as he noted yesterday, when there are bigger issues looming like the debt ceiling and deficit reduction. There is no great option for the Speaker.

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