ANALYSIS

John Boehner caught in middle of House spending debate

Posted Sept. 23, 2011, at 6:03 a.m.
House Speaker John Boehner
AP
House Speaker John Boehner

WASHINGTON — As Washington lurched toward another potential government shutdown crisis Thursday night, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, found himself roaming the contours of a familiar dilemma — capitulate to fiscal hawks in his own party who want to spend less or compromise with disgruntled Democrats who want to spend more.

The speaker assessed his conundrum and shrugged. “Welcome to my world,” Boehner said.

But Boehner’s world seems increasingly difficult and incomprehensible. After the surprise defeat Wednesday of a relatively mundane bill designed to fund government for just seven weeks, Boehner spent Thursday scrambling to get the votes for a new GOP version of the bill — a short-term funding measure to keep the government running when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

The targets of his persuasion were conservatives in his own party whom he tried to persuade to reverse course and support a bill they had opposed a day earlier.

The blow-up over what Boehner had once hoped would be a routine matter — a bill to merely keep government operating until Nov. 18 — illustrated what has become a central reality for the Republican speaker: He controls the House majority only on paper.

On any given vote, he must contend with a sizable bloc of his own members willing to buck his leadership in the name of shrinking government.

This leaves him in the uncomfortable position of having to seek alliances with Democrats — and negotiating those alliances from a position of weakness.

On Thursday, Boehner warned his rank and file at a 90-minute meeting that he would give them one more chance to approve the bill or he would be forced to agree to a Democratic demand to drop a cut to an automaker loan program designed to offset new disaster relief spending in the measure.

That option, he warned, would result in higher spending and a political victory for the Democrats.

Late Thursday evening, House Republicans were working to attach additional spending cuts to the funding measure, potentially striking out $100 million in funding for a loan program that funded the bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. Their hope was to lure conservative Republicans to support the plan.

Republicans defended the decision to hold the vote Wednesday, even though they realized it was likely to fail. The GOP leadership wanted to demonstrate to the recalcitrant conservatives that their actions had real consequences. One senior Republican adviser called the process “an educational experience.”

“I’ve always believed in allowing the House to work its will. I understood what the risk was yesterday. But why not put the bill on the floor and let the members speak? And they did,” Boehner said Thursday morning at his weekly press briefing.

According to GOP lawmakers and aides, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had reported to Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., that a few dozen Republicans would oppose the legislation, mostly because they thought its spending levels were too far above those they voted for in the spring when they approved the 2012 budget originally proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Boehner’s leadership team knew that it would need Democratic votes to approve the plan, but only by Wednesday afternoon did they fully understand that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., were whipping their caucus to oppose the measure and make Boehner deliver nearly all Republican votes for passage. Rather than pulling the bill from the floor, Boehner told his deputies to hold the vote.

The extraordinary effort required to pass such a basic bill suggests even bigger battles later in the fall on potential blockbuster deficit-reduction plans.

The stopgap spending bill is necessary because the House and Senate have stalemated over how to fund government for the whole year. Without a stopgap in place to buy time for further negotiations, the government will shut down at month’s end.

House leaders had hoped to pass the short-term funding bill without the strife that had characterized recent debates in a divided Congress, which they knew would erode financial markets’ confidence and spark further disgust among voters.

They would do it by agreeing to set spending in the bill at a rate of $1.043 trillion for the year, the amount set in the rancorous August deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

But that plan ran headlong into the political realities of their divided chamber — as well as a congressional calendar that provides for a week-long recess beginning Friday so that dozens of Jewish lawmakers can observe their holidays next week.

Democrats, stung by accusations that they had made too many concessions in the debt fight during the summer, stood unified against the measure over a Republican decision to pair $3.65 billion in funding for disaster relief with a $1.5 billion spending cut to the the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which offers loans to car companies to encourage the production of energy-efficient cars.

That particular cut was anathema to many Democrats, who argued that the loan program has generated tens of thousands of jobs.

“We shouldn’t even be having this conversation,” said Pelosi. “The fact is when natural disaster strikes, the American people are in need. . . . They don’t need to have the fear that there’s going to be a debate over how this is going to be paid for.”

Still, many Republicans said they could not support a bill that did not cut spending more deeply — even if it meant forcing their leaders to make concessions to Democrats to get the bill passed.

“It’s painful to say that my vote helped my party lose this issue. I do not like that. I find no joy in that. I find no pride in that,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who had opposed the bill Thursday.

But, he said, “those of us who were elected, especially just recently, have to justify why we were elected” — to cut spending.

Democrats, meanwhile, relished the prospect that their unified opposition might finally force Boehner to abandon his conservative colleagues.

“In the House, the majority controls all the mechanisms,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. “You’d better be able to produce the votes. You just cant go willy-nilly to the floor and then say, ‘Well, oopsy.’ ”

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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