It's Not Getting Any Easier for Boehner

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JONATHAN COHN FEBRUARY 11, 2011

It's Not Getting Any Easier for Boehner

I think Ezra Klein is correct in Wonkbook (which remains excellent, by the way—anyone wanting to keep up with policy developments should really make it a daily must) about what really mattered in the House this week. It’s how easily the leadership was rolled by the rank and file on spending:

This loss, much more than the failed votes on the extension of the PATRIOT Act or funds for the United Nations (both of which were brought to the floor under a rule requiring a 2/3rd majority for passage) shows that the House GOP leadership has little sway and less control over the rank-and-file. The Republican Study Committee seems more powerful than the Republican leadership at this point. The budget proposal produced by Rep. Jim Jordan won out over the one favored by Rep. Paul Ryan. If I were a betting man, I’d say the odds of a government shutdown—either over cuts or the debt ceiling—just went up dramatically.

Greg Sargent highlights the role of outside organizations in enforcing budget-cutting orthodoxy among GOP Members of Congress, who of course are petrified of primary election challenges backed by those organizations.

I’ve always thought that the obvious strategy for Republican Congressional leaders was to declare victory on as many conservative issues as possible, even if all he could negotiate were some symbolic achievements—such as, say, banning earmarks, or taking votes on Constitutional amendments. As Stan Collender said earlier this week, that seems to be the direction they’re trying to go in. But if the party won’t let them go that way, well, there’s plenty of trouble ahead. Especially for John Boehner, but a budget shutdown could easily blow up in the faces of new GOP Members of the House.

In some ways, what we’re seeing so far is two completely different approaches: Barack Obama, as is his usual style, starts by staking out a pre-compomised position and saying he’s happy to work with the other side on further changes, hoping to gain the sensible center, while House Republicans will make a first offer that’s set to their ideal end point, complete with lots of rhetorical insistence that they can’t budget an inch. The disadvantage for the president’s position is that he can’t possibly get his ideal position (since he’s already conceded that), that he doesn’t get to make a full-throated case for what he really believes (other than the principle of compromise), and that his strongest supporters start out upset with him.

The GOP strategy has disadvantages of its own.They will almost certainly wind up casting tough votes (from a general election point of view—in other words, they’ll vote to cut popular spending) that they can’t enact into law. When they compromise, and they’ll certainly have to do that, they’ll eventually have to backtrack, pass something more moderate, and therefore flip-flop. Also, since this is a repeated game, if they develop a reputation for phony brinkmanship, they may wind up hurting their bargaining strength in the next rounds. That is, what we’re talking about right now is the remainder of the current fiscal year budget—remember, the Democrats botched the job last year, and so the government is running on a temporary extension that runs out in March. But after that comes the budget for the next fiscal year, and then the one after that, and meanwhile all sorts of other issues will have to be hashed out. If Republicans are perceived as folding on this one, that hurts their chances for winning on those.

What’s more, the sense—and, if it’s the case, the reality—that Boehner and the rest of the leadership may not be able to speak for their conference may make their task close to impossible.

Remember, we don’t know how it’s going to play out. What we’re talking about is the public side of negotiations, and we don’t know what the true bottom line is for any of the players. For House GOPers and the outside organizations that are egging them on, one can imagine at least three possible situations. One is that they believe, as a matter of negotiating strategy, that the best thing to do is start off as far to one side as possible, because negotiators inevitably wind up splitting the difference between the two opening positions (many Democrats have criticized Obama on those grounds, although at least in my view it involves a misunderstanding of how bargaining works). A second possibility is that whatever the rank-and-file believes now, once things get going (and after they record their initial votes for their preferred policy) they will be willing to go along with whatever the leadership tells them is possible.

The third possibility is the dangerous one: that there are a very large number of Members who for reasons either of political calculation or true belief will always find “reject Washington deals” to be the best course of action. If that turns out to be the case—and it very well might be—Boehner will have little choice but to start down the path to confrontation, and once it starts he’ll find it very, very difficult to dig out.

The truth is it’s not hard at all to imagine Republican disaster: Republicans refuse to pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running at current levels of funding while negotiations continue; Democrats refuse to pass a short-term resolution keeping government running that includes Republican spending cuts; the government shuts down; broad majorities favor the president’s position; but Republican constituencies demand that House Republicans hold strong, and House Republicans don’t really care about (or believe) what most American think, responding only to their base voters who think everything is going well. Surely, it’s hard to imagine Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity interpreting the polling any other way, isn’t it?

Either way, it’s going to be very, very difficult for John Boehner to emerge from any kind of deal with the support of the Republican partisan media. And if they turn strongly against him, it’s not at all clear to me that he can survive. Again, the way around that for him was to just declare victory on something that the Democrats could live with because it was mostly symbolic. What’s important about the budget news this week is that it’s looking less and less like he’ll be able to get away with that.

Anyway, the point is that all three of those bottom lines are consistent with what we’ve seen so far, and also that the third one seems quite plausible to me. It may be a very interesting next couple of months. 

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, barack obama, ezra klein, greg sargent, jim jordan, john boehner, paul ryan, stan collender, congress, republican party, united nations

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