Boehner’s Three Budget Options, and Why They’re All Bad

The Speaker of the House can damage the GOP, his personal standing or a combination of both as he tries to find a way out of the budget crisis

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

This week’s budget theater in the U.S. Senate has so far spared House Speaker John Boehner from a tough decision. At some point over the next few days, however, the Ohio Republican will be forced to forge ahead with a strategy for keeping the federal government running without sparking a revolt among his restive members. When House Republicans meet on Thursday morning in the basement of the Capitol, Boehner has at least three options he can present. All of them are flawed:

Push House Republicans to pass the Senate’s bill this weekend.

The simplest way out of this mess is for Boehner to admit defeat. He can tell his conference that they stood up for their convictions in the House, that Senate Republicans let them down, and that they should live to fight another day. Under this scenario, Boehner would move to pass the funding bill already approved by the Senate, and send it on to the White House for signature before midnight on Monday.

But conservative Republicans claim that some 70 members would be opposed to such a path, requiring Boehner to secure Democratic votes. He would surely face dissension in his own ranks, especially if he was forced to violate the so-called Hastert rule, which dictates a majority of the House majority support any bill called to the floor.

(MORE: Sick of the Sequester and the Current Budget Crisis? Here’s One Answer)

Pass a short-term extension and continue negotiating.

Boehner can push a short-term stopgap funding measure through the House, keeping the government running for just a week or two until Congress will be forced to act anyway on raising the debt limit. Merging the two deadlines might give Boehner more flexibility to negotiate with the White House, potentially skirting Obama’s standing and oft-repeated promise not to negotiate on the debt limit. Republicans are preparing to attach a grab bag of familiar conservative demands to a debt-limit bill, which could receive a vote as soon as this week.

But some members would balk at a short-term funding extension designed to combine the two fights or buy more time to negotiate. “I see no reason,” says Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp. “I don’t see how we get any stronger.” Blake Farenthold, a second-termer from Texas, adds: “I think it’s premature to talk about raising the debt limit when we haven’t even figured out what we’re going to do with the [continuing resolution passed by the House]. Both are leverage points that the Republicans in the House have.” It also has the disadvantage of prolonging Boehner’s pain — and everyone else’s.

Change the Senate version and send it back.

This option virtually guarantees a shutdown. For one thing, there is little time for the two chambers to swap proposals. In addition, Senate Democrats and the White House have said repeatedly they don’t intend to negotiate over the provisions House Republicans might seek to attach, like a delay of the Affordable Care Act. Some polls suggest support for such a delay, and Boehner embraced this strategy over the summer.

(MORE: Obama: GOP Using Extortion In Debt Limit, Budget Fights)

But this approach could be the most damaging of all to the party: polls suggest Republicans are likely to shoulder the bulk of the blame if the government shuts down. Nevertheless, many House conservatives so oppose a bill that leaves the health care law intact that they’re happy to detonate this bomb, whatever the fallout. “I would have been the first one to sign a blood oath,” says Iowa Representative Steve King, to shut down the government rather than support a bill that funds Obamacare.

Boehner’s history with past debt negotiations suggests he won’t pick his poison until the last possible moment. Throughout the latest round of Washington’s ongoing war over federal spending levels, the House Speaker has repeatedly sought to deflect attention from the divisions in his conference by arguing responsibility lies with the Senate. “We’ll deal with whatever the Senate passes when they pass it. There’s no point in speculating before that,” says Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.

But the Speaker doesn’t have much time to settle on a strategy. On Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved to end debate on the House bill, sending up a final vote on Saturday. It likely won’t be a restful Sunday for John Boehner.

— With reporting by Alex Rogers