Boehner Basks In Brief Glory As Doomed Budget Passes House

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Speaker of the House John Boehner is cheered as Republican members of the House of Representatives rally after passing a bill that would prevent a government shutdown, while crippling the health care law that was the signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama's first term, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 20, 2013.

To a newcomer, the hearty ovation might have suggested that John Boehner was the Republican Party’s conquering hero.

When Boehner strolled Friday into the ornate Rayburn Room on the second floor of the Capitol, he found a triumphant tableau: his entire conference, hooting and cheering under the crystal chandeliers, packed against walnut walls the color of the speaker’s skin. Boehner took his place at the center under a painting of George Washington, as GOP whip Kevin McCarthy heralded the day’s “bipartisan” achievement.

The term was technically accurate, though it stretched the meaning of the word to breaking point. The House on Friday passed a temporary spending measure that funds the government until Dec. 15, while defunding Barack Obama’s health-care law. It passed by a margin of 230-189. Two conservative Democrats, Utah’s Jim Matheson and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, joined in backing the resolution; one Republican, Scott Rigell of Virginia, bucked the GOP line.

The measure now heads to the Senate, a prospect that seemed to delight House Republicans. Part of that seems sheer spite: after months of hectoring from Senator Ted Cruz, many House Republicans are plenty ready for the Texas conservative to step into the ring. But they also perceive other political benefits. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who stood behind a podium emblazoned with the hashtag #SenateMustAct, called out three Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states: Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina—in a sign that the House believes it will a be a tough vote.

Despite all the hoopla, the result will disappoint any Republicans who harbor delusions of winning it. The Democratic-controlled Senate is certain to strip out the Obamacare provision House Tea Partyers worked so hard to embed in the measure. Next Wednesday, when the House returns to Washington, they will face sharp political pressure with with precious few days to negotiate a compromise. If the two branches of Congress cannot agree, many of the non-essential parts of the federal government will shutdown on Oct. 1.

For those hoping for a final showdown over a controversial law, the drama may prove anticlimactic. The endgame is shaping up less like a bare-knuckle brawl than a game of hot potato, with both chambers bidding to corner the other into making a final move. It is not yet clear when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will send back a stopgap funding measure shorn of the defund provision. But House Republicans say that won’t be the final volley in the bicameral negotiations. “We reserve the right to send anything back,” said Oklahoma Representative James Lankford, a member of the GOP leadership team. Even shutting down the government woud not block the implementation of Obama’s signature piece of legislation.

Republicans could decide not to launch their final charge on the budget fight and instead dig in on the debt limit, which must be hiked by mid-October. Next week the House may also vote on a debt-limit package that could include instructions for tax and entitlement reform as the construction of the stalled Keystone XL pipeline. “There are a lot of options that are possible, a lot of combinations there,” said House Republican Tom Cole. “We’re really entering an extended 75-day negotiation.”

For all the uncertainty hovering over the Capitol, one thing was clear Friday: a dysfunctional Congress has once again lurched into a crisis of its own making. And whatever your political views, nobody summed up the state of affairs better than the House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi. “This place,” she said, “is a mess.”