House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday shifted strategies in the twin fiscal battles with Democrats as he sought to maintain Republican unity and force President Obama to the negotiating table.
Boehner, R-Ohio, has had two overriding priorities throughout the fiscal standoff: Protect the Republican majority’s relevancy and preserve the legislative branch’s institutional power to use must-pass legislation like the debt ceiling increase and government funding bill to achieve congressional priorities.
Republican unity offers Boehner the best opportunity for success, and the speaker has chosen a strategy of tactical flexibility to bolster that unity amid constantly changing political conditions.
Boehner recognized that conservative rebels in his caucus were reluctant to abandon their fight to defund Obamacare and that the Democratic Senate might jam House Republicans on a debt ceiling deal in the 11th hour. So he proposed raising the federal borrowing limit unconditionally for six weeks to provide time and create good will for negotiations with Obama over federal spending and fiscal reforms.
This approach would allow House Republicans to prevent the financial calamity that could follow the government's defaulting on its $16.7 trillion debt. It also retains what Republicans view as important leverage to make the defunding or delay of Obamacare a condition for reopening the government.
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who is close with Boehner, said the speaker made the best decision available to him.
“Right now we have some natural divisions [in the party] that could be exploited if we don’t try to work together and so leadership’s worked really hard to try to pull everybody along,” Stivers said. “I think that is important.”
Boehner’s surprise proposal to pass a short-term debt ceiling increase without conditions follows a strategy the speaker has employed since a few days after the government shut down on Oct. 1.
Critics contend that Boehner has at times appeared to lurch from one position to the next, as though grasping for a workable game plan. There have been times when House Republicans openly admitted that they didn’t know what their leaders intended to do next. Some House Republicans concede that their leaders did not appear to have a strategy to navigate the shutdown until 48 hours after the government closed.
But that changed as Boehner and his leadership team adjusted to conditions on the ground. Republicans familiar with Boehner’s planning say the speaker has a clear idea of where he wants his House majority to land as debates over spending and borrowing approach an apex, and he charts each day’s path with that in mind.
But with events moving fast and the political terrain shifting daily, Republican sources say Boehner wants to remain flexible rather than commit to a predetermined course. This approach, while occasionally frustrating to rank-and-file members, is leadership’s direct response to previous GOP failures to create party consensus on major issues, most notably legislation to avert last year’s fiscal cliff. So instead, Boehner listens to members’ concerns first, and pushes them toward a preferred outcome slowly.
One House Republican said Boehner must move patiently and deliberately and keep his strategy mostly to himself. That way the speaker could prevent rebellious House conservatives or others from getting "caught up in criticizing step one of the plan” before leadership can guide them to a strategy’s conclusion.
Meanwhile, Boehner also must calibrate each move he makes for three audiences: his Republican members, the White House and voters.
Playing to the voters explains why Republicans are suddenly supporting almost unanimously funding for Head Start and back pay for federal workers affected by the shutdown. Some have questioned the contradiction of Republicans voting for the kind of legislation they often oppose, but this legislative strategy is strictly for the consumption of voters, not Capitol Hill analysts.
Republicans initially expected Democrats to support a series of targeted appropriations bill they passed to fund specific parts of the government. But when Democrats balked, Republicans kept passing the funding bills anyway in hopes that it would help them politically in the 2014 elections — if the shutdown and debt ceiling fights haven't already inflicted permanent damage on the party.
“Congress isn’t a rubber stamp,” Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said.