WASHINGTON – With a government shutdown deadline just days away, House Speaker John Boehner faces a fateful choice over whether to abandon conservatives to reach a final deal on 2011 spending.
If the Ohio Republican puts the priority on GOP unity, he could force a shutdown that many strategists believe could be costly to his party. But if he goes for a deal with Democrats, the decision has the potential to splinter the new Republican majority in the House. Either way, the choice could define his leadership.
At issue is the size of budget reductions that the Republicans are willing to accept for the rest of the 2011 budget year. Last week, in negotiations with Democrats, Boehner appeared to be ready to propose roughly $26 billion in cuts for the remaining six months of the fiscal year on top of $10 billion already signed into law.
A number close to that likely would be able to pass the Senate, where Democrats are still the majority, giving both parties a political victory at a time of heightened public concern over Washington spending.
But such a compromise is inadequate for the conservative House GOP wing, many of them newcomers who want deeper cuts and have cemented support from veteran Republican lawmakers.
Both sides say they want to avoid a shutdown, and Democrats are urging Boehner to get negotiations back on track. Late Monday evening, White House chief of staff William Daley called Boehner to try to bring the two sides back to the table.
“Speaker Boehner is caught between a shutdown and a hard place,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “It’s time to forget the tea party and take the deal.”
To make matters even more complicated for Boehner, the influential Tea Party Patriots group plans to stage a rally at the Capitol on Thursday.
“We think we should push for $90 billion in cuts,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.
Also on Thursday, Newt Gingrich, a presumed Republican presidential candidate, will visit Republicans on Capitol Hill. Gingrich is the former House speaker who in the 1990s twice led Congress to shut down the government over a budget stalemate.
Gingrich has said he thinks another funding cutoff would be better than going back on GOP principles, although his decision to go for a shutdown when he was speaker is widely considered a blunder that allowed Democratic President Bill Clinton to recover his political dominance after his party’s defeat in the 1994 election.
Boehner has succeeded so far in holding his conference together partly because the votes he was asking members to take were more matters of political symbolism than actual consequence.
But the spending issue strikes at the hearts of many rank-and-file members who ran their campaigns on a promise to end Washington’s profligate ways. In deeply Republican districts, their voters want to cut more deeply.
Any deal prompting more Republicans to defect would push Boehner into further dependence on Democrats.
Democratic leaders in the House indicated Tuesday that they would be willing to help pass a budget measure. But for Boehner, allies like those would only further reduce his standing among conservatives, both in and out of Washington.
“That’ll be the challenge for Boehner,” said Ronald Peters, a political science professor at Oklahoma University’s congressional studies center. “The only tool at his disposal now is his persuasion.”
Boehner showed his pragmatic side two weeks ago, when faced with a stopgap proposal to keep government running.
That measure, which expires April 8, cut federal spending at a rate on par with the earlier House-passed bill of more than $61 billion, one of the largest one-time reductions to domestic education, arts, health and infrastructure programs of its kind.
Despite major cuts, conservatives rejected the temporary bill because it failed to include top Republican policy priorities and represented what they saw as business-as-usual deal-making in Washington. Boehner relied on House Democrats to pass it.
From the other end of the negotiating table, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was so impressed by Boehner’s pragmatism on that measure that he said he wanted to deliver the House speaker a “bouquet.”
Last week, Boehner and Reid appeared to be just $6 billion apart on a new deal. But talks fell apart.
Democrats blamed the impasse on pressure from Boehner’s tea party contingent. Republicans said Democrats had yet to fully present their latest budget proposal.
Boehner, in a show of strength, appeared at a news conference Tuesday along with nearly a dozen members from across the spectrum of his caucus – leaders, chairmen, freshmen.
But he also said all options remain on the table. “Nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to,” he said.