WASHINGTON – With the deadline for a federal government shutdown growing near, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner had a familiar choice to make: embrace something that looked like a compromise with Democrats, antagonizing conservatives in his party, or give in to their demands and guarantee a showdown with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.
On Wednesday, Boehner announced that he had chosen to stick with his own.
Rather than rallying Republicans to a less-confrontational plan to keep the government running past Sept. 30, Boehner threw in with the boisterous, rebellious wing of the House GOP. He set a vote for Friday that would simultaneously provide funding to keep the government open while stripping away money to implement portions of Obama’s health care law.
This approach has proved divisive, even among Republicans.
The speaker’s team also announced that it intended to challenge the Obama administration further by demanding a one-year delay of all aspects of the health care law, known as the Affordable Care Act, when it comes time to consider granting expanded borrowing authority to the Treasury in the coming weeks.
Without that authority, the federal government risks a first-of-its-kind default on the nation’s nearly $17 trillion debt.
The Democratic reaction to both ideas was swift, setting up yet another game of political brinkmanship that is likely to leave the embattled Boehner in an even weaker position and threaten the fragile U.S. economic recovery.
Moments after Boehner announced his intentions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasted the strategy, saying Republican “anarchists” are tying up the upper chamber by insisting on votes about delaying or ending the health care law. “Bipartisanship is a thing of the past. Now all we do is gotcha legislation,” Reid said.
Without any action by Sept. 30, almost every agency of the government will be partially shuttered as an even more ominous deadline to increase the federal debt limit looms a few weeks later in October.
The first step for Boehner is winning approval for the stopgap funding bill entirely with Republican votes. His strategy against the Affordable Care Act has won him the support of a large number of conservatives who have repeatedly criticized his leadership and voted against previous bills he has advanced.
The legislation would fund federal agencies at an annualized rate of more than $986 billion but would also leave in place automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, set to take effect in January. It would include language to prohibit any funds going to implementing the health care law and, additionally, authorize the Treasury to pay some bills and not others in the event that no deal is reached in October on increasing the debt limit.
With the newfound conservative support, Republicans believe that legislation will pass.
In the Senate, Reid plans to strip the health care provisions from the government funding bill, and senior aides in both parties said he would have the procedural flexibility to do so.
When the Senate is done with the funding bill, the House of Representatives will have to vote on it again, but that timetable probably would leave Boehner just two or three days to make a fateful decision: approve the legislation with a large bloc of Democratic votes or pursue the health care strategy further and shut the government down.