Shutdown Countdown: How Lonely Is Boehner?

Posted April 4, 2011 at 6:14pm

You really have to wonder if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is feeling as if the whole world is against him. With only a few days left before a budget-related shutdown of the federal government could begin, Boehner appears to have a distinct lack of political friends as the negotiations and behind-the-scenes jockeying continue. On this issue at least, Boehner seems to be about as isolated as a Speaker can get.

Start with the Republican Party’s tea party wing that doesn’t feel beholden to Boehner in any way. This is not supposition or reading the tea leaves; high-level tea party supporters and a number of GOP Representatives who associate with the tea party have told me that they don’t think Boehner had anything to do with their electoral success in November. Therefore, they don’t owe him their vote on any issue, they said.

They are also wary that Boehner might cut a deal they don’t want with the White House and Senate Democrats. The tea party wing provided most of the 54 GOP votes cast against the continuing resolution that will expire at midnight Friday. They voted against their own Speaker because they didn’t like what he negotiated and have clearly shown a willingness to do it again.

Boehner also may not be able to count on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for his support on a CR. It’s still not clear whether the distance on the continuing resolution between the Speaker and Majority Leader that became public last week is real or something that was carefully choreographed to provide Boehner with additional leverage in his negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.

But given that Cantor has some of his own problems with the tea party that over-the-top support for its preferences would help cure and that he’s in the best position to gain personally if Boehner disappoints the faithful on this issue, there’s a good possibility that the differences between the two are real. As a result, Cantor’s support for a Boehner-negotiated CR can’t be assumed.

Other House Republicans also have to be watching Boehner with a certain amount of caution given the possibility that many will get primary challenges if they vote for a continuing resolution that doesn’t include the spending cuts and policy changes the tea party is demanding. The question is, how many of these Republican Members will be willing to walk the political plank for Boehner on a CR given the politically piranha-infested waters into which they would be jumping?

Add three more groups to the list. 

First, 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. voters consider themselves to be independents, so Boehner cannot simply assume that this large bloc will support the final CR or be happy with a shutdown.

Second, House Democrats clearly are not likely to be interested in Boehner’s success.

Third, and in many ways most interesting, virtually every poll shows little overall support for the spending cuts demanded by the tea party. For example, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last Friday showed yet again that, with the exception of foreign aid, there is very little enthusiasm for even small reductions in any area of the federal budget. In fact, the poll showed that there was substantial support for increasing spending in many of the areas the GOP says it wants to reduce.

Therefore, Boehner is not likely to feel a lot of political love and affection no matter what he does on the CR. Unless it includes more spending cuts than are now being discussed and at least some red meat language, like a prohibition on using any funds to implement health care reform — neither of which seems likely — any compromise with the White House is very likely to be rejected by Members in the tea party wing.

But Democrats aren’t as likely to provide the votes needed to pass the bill as they were two weeks ago without additional concessions and an incontrovertible public statement from Boehner that he supports the deal. That would get Boehner the votes, but it also might get him a primary opponent and a challenge to his leadership.

Boehner could, of course, go in the other direction by letting a shutdown occur. That would be singing to the tea party choir, but it could also push independents to do in 2012 what they did in 2008 by voting Democratic. It could also lead to heavy criticism of the GOP if it is blamed, rather than Democrats and the Obama administration.

This extraordinary situation would be difficult for any Speaker, but it’s going to be especially hard for Boehner, who has already been rolled by the tea party on several budget issues. With as few friends as Boehner seems to have now, you really have to wonder how many he will have when the fight over the CR is over.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”