With Congress Back from Break, Boehner Finds Himself Negotiating at the Brink Once Again

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Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Politically speaking, it’s been a relatively quiet August recess for members of Congress: no screaming health care town halls like the ones in 2009, no emergency sessions to approve aid to the states, which occupied time last August. Of course, those members representing the east coast have been busy with earthquakes and hurricanes. And for those involved in foreign relations, it’s been a hectic period: riots in London, a violent crackdown in Syria and the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Still, for the average Republican freshman returning home for his or her first summer work period, the time has been their first real break from a tumultuous year.

Hopefully, House Speaker John Boehner enjoyed the silence this Labor Day weekend. He’s got a tough few months ahead of him. After a near-government shutdown and a dangerous round of brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling, Boehner’s job will be to maintain this sense of calm through an Indian summer and into next year. The debt ceiling battle was more bruising for Boehner – and his freshman class – than anybody anticipated. Congressional approval ratings are at historic lows: Gallup has them at 13%, the AP/GfK survey puts them at 12% and a New York Times/CBS poll this month found Congress with the highest disapproval rating ever – 82%.

The House Republican Conference is about five inches away from overreach. One more round of the ‘shut the government down’ game and they risk voters abandoning them in disgust. House Democrats edged out their GOP counterparts in July fundraising and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is waiting in the wings for any opportunity to take back the House. Boehner’s majority is only 23 seats, 61 of them in seats won by President Obama in 2008, so losing their majority is not out of the realm of possibility these days, especially if Republicans overreach.

In reality, Boehner has spent his entire tenure as Speaker trying to pull his freshman class back from the brink with limited success. He remembers too well New Gingrich’s 1995 charge right over the cliff, and thus pulled the government back from the brink of a shutdown in March. He also tried to get his freshmen to accept a more moderate debt ceiling bill – a move they rejected, many of them calling for the debt ceiling to lapse in order to force the government to live within their means. That loss has called Boehner’s control over his conference into question as they barrel into another minefield of hidden dangers.

In addition to potentially bitter fights over the deficit-cutting supercommittee tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in savings by Thanksgiving and the expiration of the federal gas tax on Sept. 30,  Boehner must again negotiate a continuing resolution to fund the government in order to prevent another shutdown at the end of September when the fiscal year ends. And once again many of his freshmen are pushing him to go to the brink. Boehner knows a shutdown would be catastrophic for his conference, and that’s why he agreed to a top-line 2012 budget number as part of the debt ceiling deal. That number, which would cut only $7 billion in discretionary spending, is far too small in many freshmen’s eyes. “We consider it a floor, not a ceiling,” one senior GOP aide to a freshman Representative told TIME. Nonetheless, even Majority Leader Eric Cantor encouraged Republicans to accept the number in an Aug. 17 memo. “While all of us would like to have seen a lower discretionary appropriations ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year, the debt limit agreement did set a level of spending that is a real cut from the current year level,” he wrote. “I believe it is in our interest to enact into law full-year appropriations bills at this new lower level.”

But in addition to the cuts, the freshmen will also be pushing for policy riders, as they did in the debate over the 2011 budget. Abortion, climate change, health care regulations– these issues are bound to be relitigated, setting up a potential standoff with President Obama, who administration officials say is prepared to stand his ground. Boehner may not have much control of the volume knob, but he can switch the channel: He will ultimately decide what can come to the floor for debate and what legislation will get a vote. So, it will be interesting to see how many of these riders actually end up getting major time in the public eye this time around.

There’s plenty of room for more brinkmanship and political games. Just take last week, when Obama announced he’d address a joint session of Congress on jobs. The Administration says Boehner’s office okayed the proposed date of Sept. 7. There is, of course, a Republican presidential debate scheduled for that night. Boehner accused Obama of trying to ram the date down their throats and asked it be moved to Sept. 8. Obama agreed but not without an ugly exchange of background emails and calls accusing one another of childish behavior. As it turns out,  Washington politicians don’t need to bring the economy to the edge of collapse or nearly shut down the government to make fools of themselves in the eyes of the American people.