Capitol Idea: April’s Fool: Will it be John Boehner, or the Tea Party?

You can always count on Sen. Chuck Schumer to get to the heart of a matter with a good quote.

“So Speaker Boehner is caught between a shutdown and a hard place,” the voluble New Yorker says. “He has caught a tiger by the tail in the form of the Tea Party.”

With just a little more than a week left to settle on a federal budget to avoid a government shutdown, congressional Democrats and Republicans actually seemed like they might be close to a deal.  But, suddenly, the House Republicans did a strange thing. They pulled back from the talks. They changed their minds about what level of spending cuts they could accept.

“We were right on the verge of a breakthrough, and they suddenly moved the goalposts. We felt a little bit like we were left at the altar,” Schumer adds.

What happened? In a word or two, the answer is, “tea party.” Hard-line conservatives got cold feet, fearing too much of a compromise of the deep, deep budget cuts they passed last month in the form of H.R. 1, the spending bill opposed by President Obama and Senate Democrats.

Boehner ultimately came back to the bargaining table, and the word now is that Boehner’s office has at least agreed with Democrats on a target level of cuts: $33 billion.  Although that certainly counts as progress, now comes the hard part: what, specifically, to cut to get to that $33 billion.  Conservatives, no doubt, will continue to want to slash things like public broadcasting and environmental protection funding.  Democrats would rather cut things like programs already identified as waste or redundancy, as well as federal tax subsidies to big oil companies that already are posting record profits.

But a question just as large for Speaker Boehner is whether his tea party colleagues will go along with whatever compromise he and his team hammer out.  Already, more than 50 House conservatives walked away from him on an earlier budget vote that he supported. It was Democrats who had to step in to save that vote earlier this month in order to avert a government shutdown.

The consensus is that debacle has already weakened Boehner’s position.

As I write this, tea party activists are rallying at the Capitol against compromise, to press for a continued hard line for the budget.  The question is, if that is true and Boehner already is weakened, what happens if tea party lawmakers abandon him a second time?

Most immediately, of course, the speaker can, and will, turn once more to Democrats to save the day. There’s already word that he is laying the groundwork to do so.

That would be good policy, and avoid a government shutdown looming for April 9.

The politics are a different matter, however.  Democrats aren’t the ones who voted Boehner in as speaker. Republicans did, including scores of tea party-aligned conservatives who will have been scorned if Boehner turns to Democrats to pass a compromise budget.

If Boehner relies on Democrats for a compromise, tea party lawmakers could well become enraged and Boehner could find his speakership in jeopardy.  Conservative lawmakers could well launch a plan to depose Boehner as speaker, and replace him with a leader who they find to be a more reliable ally.

Indeed, tea party lawmakers almost certainly would have to do so.  If they oppose a final budget, Boehner passes it with Democrats and survives as speaker, it will be the tea party and the members it helped elect who will have been so marginalized as to become nearly irrelevant in the debate.

Either way, someone will start April finding that the joke in Washington will be on them.


Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was published previously as “April’s Fool: Will It Be John Boehner, or The Tea Party?” on Blogcritics.

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