White House officials say House Speaker John Boehner could end the U.S. government shutdown today. If only it were that simple for the besieged Ohio Republican.
In a defining moment for Congress’ most powerful Republican, Boehner’s boxed in by competing factions within his party in the House. One side is pushing to make a stand against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, while the other says the shutdown goes too far and that it’s time to retreat.
While Boehner had said he didn’t want a shutdown, it happened anyway. And that means it may be harder to control his caucus again when an even bigger fight unfolds later this month on raising the nation’s borrowing limit in time to avoid the first-ever U.S. default.
“One faction, of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government, shut down major parts of the government -- all because they didn’t like one law,” Obama said yesterday, blaming House Republicans for the shutdown.
So far, the 63-year-old Boehner has maneuvered to keep almost all 232 House Republicans together in the face of pressure from the White House and Senate Democrats. The House passed anti-Obamacare measures three times in as many days with almost-unanimous Republican votes and just a dozen defections on the final tally. Republicans also stuck together yesterday during a series of votes on plans that would have opened parts of the federal government.
Keeping Republicans unified is no small feat after embarrassing intra-party battles earlier this year over immigration law revisions, superstorm Sandy recovery operations, transportation funding and farm legislation.
“The amazing thing to me is that Boehner and his team have been able to keep us together right up to the precipice of this,” Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said in an interview, hours before the U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 years.
One of the biggest threats came late on Sept. 30, when some northeastern Republicans, including Representative Peter King of New York, tried to avert the shutdown by opposing Boehner’s 11th-hour proposal.
The speaker pushed back, personally appealing to members to support his strategy. It worked, or otherwise the vote “would have been a lot closer,” King said.
Boehner, who has long voiced a philosophy of letting the House “work its will,” didn’t twist arms, King said.
“There is pressure and there is pressure. I’ve been around politics, I grew up with Al D’Amato and those guys,” King said of the former U.S. senator and longtime rainmaker in New York Republican politics. “I know what pressure is.”
Even House Republicans, including Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, say that because of their slim majority, a vote to simply re-open the government would probably pass with support from Democrats if Boehner put the question to the chamber. The dilemma for Boehner is that most Republicans would oppose it, and he needs their support to hold on to his job.
“The speaker’s not bringing up a clean CR,” said Representative Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, referring to a continuing resolution to simply re-open government.
Unlike past fiscal feuds, this dispute is more about the health law and less about the amount of spending. The U.S. budget deficit in June was 4.3 percent of gross domestic product, down from 10.1 percent in February 2010 and the narrowest since November 2008, when Obama was elected to his first term, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the Treasury Department and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
So far, there’s been little external pressure to reach a deal. U.S. stocks rose yesterday, after the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell the day before to a three-week low, as investors speculated the economic effects of the partial government shutdown would be limited. The S&P 500 climbed 0.8 percent to 1,695 in New York, after declining Sept. 30 for the seventh time in the past eight sessions.
While the shutdown is only in its second day, Republicans and Democrats have become entrenched in their positions for months. A group of House and Senate Republicans, led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, held rallies during the August break promising not to vote for any temporary budget that included money for Obamacare.
At the same time, Obama has promised he wouldn’t negotiate on the budget resolution or increasing the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt limit by an Oct. 17 deadline to avoid what would be an historic moment.
To be sure, there was a technical issue once. The government was late to make payments on about $122 million of bills in 1979, in part, because of “severe technical difficulties” that the Treasury said stemmed from a failure in word-processing equipment, Terry Zivney and Richard Marcus wrote in August 1989 in the “The Financial Review.”
“We may have gotten ourselves in a position where we can’t budge on a clean CR and they can’t budge on Obamacare,” said Idaho Republican Mike Simpson. “Then what do you do?”
The caucus remains unified yet “certainly there is a concern” about centrist Republicans who want to vote on opening the government without conditions, he said.
Obama senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, and Gene Sperling, the president’s economic adviser, repeatedly blamed Boehner for the shutdown yesterday during a Bloomberg Government luncheon.
“This is really like a decision of one man,” Pfeiffer said. “Is Speaker Boehner willing to tell 60 to 70 Tea Party members he is in charge of the house, not them? If he does that, then put something on the floor and it would pass.”
Boehner’s initial plan was similar to that. His first proposal would have let the Senate remove a proposal to defund Obamacare and send the spending bill to the president.
Tea party-backed members wanted a bigger fight, and Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, reversed course. Boehner has won praise from tea party lawmakers by instead backing three different proposals to the Senate, all of which would have dismantled the health-care law.
“We’ve never been more unified,” said Representative Tom Graves of Georgia, a leading Republican voice to defund Obamacare.
Boehner has also moved to pacify growing dissent among among centrists who want to end the shutdown.
There were at least 10 House Republicans yesterday who said they’d vote for a temporary spending measure without any other conditions.
Boehner countered by offering a plan to reopen portions of the government, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Park Service.
The plan failed because Republican leaders used a procedure that required Democratic votes. While Republicans were unified, not enough Democrats backed it.
“There is a lot of frustration” among centrist Republicans who “want to get to a resolution,” Dent told reporters yesterday.
“On this issue and many other issues we are going to have to find a coalition” with Democrats “to work with a governing majority of the House on this and many issues,” Dent said.
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