House Speaker John A. Boehner’s stunning resignation throws the congressional agenda into disarray, with short-term hope for passing crucial items offset by the long-term fear that old battles will only be repeated.
By defusing a conservative revolt that threatened to end his speakership, Boehner’s announcement effectively ended the immediate threat of a government shutdown. And because he is not leaving Congress until Oct. 30, some Republicans and many Democrats are hoping the speaker finds the resolve to push through legislation that enjoys bipartisan support but has been stalled by conservative objections.
Yet any progress may be hampered by the internal politics of the House Republican Conference and the leadership races to replace Boehner and his lieutenants.
Measures that could advance in October include a long-term budget deal, a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a multiyear highway bill and an extension of the federal debt ceiling. Some Democrats have made the unlikely suggestion that Boehner could move forward with the immigration reform package he has kept off the House floor for nearly two years because of a conservative outcry.
“He gets a chance to really go out on a high note,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio). “I expect to see a very busy month in October.”
But the possibility that Boehner might clear the legislative deck for the next speaker is complicated by the pending reshuffle of the House GOP leadership. Boehner’s deputies are looking to move up the ladder — starting with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who manages the floor schedule — and moving ahead with an agenda disliked by conservatives would be politically treacherous.
Quick elections could give Boehner room to maneuver in his final weeks, and in the past, leadership vacancies have been filled swiftly. When, for instance, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his reelection bid and subsequently announced his intention to resign in June 2014, the GOP conference elected McCarthy nine days later to replace him.
But some are pushing back on an accelerated election schedule. Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.), who is seen as a likely candidate for a leadership post, on Saturday urged his colleagues to convene an extended conference meeting to conduct a “serious discussion about why we’re here serving, what we expect of our leaders, and how we plan to accomplish our goals.”
Quick elections, Roskam said in a interview, would be a “massive error in judgment.”
“We need to really take a look at ourselves, and we really need to reflect on this,” he said. “If we don’t reflect on it well or we move too quickly, nothing good is going to happen.”
Roskam said that by Saturday evening, he had garnered enough support, from at least 50 members, to force such a meeting.
In coming months, the unresolved issues facing Congress include a host of deadlines — including hitting the debt limit, expiring tax breaks and a likely Dec. 11 limit for funding the government. Conservatives have seized upon them as leverage points with President Obama and congressional Democrats.
The last time Congress faced a such a long and contentious list of fiscal deadlines was during the 2012 “fiscal cliff.” That dispute over the fate of the debt limit, spending cuts and the tax breaks forced a rare New Year’s Eve session in the Senate.
In the short term, Boehner’s resignation resolved tensions over whether he would risk further alienating his party’s right flank by introducing a stopgap spending bill without controversial language to defund Planned Parenthood. He is now determined to move forward with a spending bill without the defunding language.
The Senate is expected to vote Monday on a measure to keep the government open through Dec. 11, giving the House two days to vote on the same bill or amend it with a different deadline. Republicans in the House said Friday that a short-term bill will pass the House and a shutdown will not occur this week.
But conservatives see the stopgap as a way to buy time while they rewrite the stakes of coming budget negotiations to create a potentially explosive fight in December. They have been infuriated by the willingness of Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to negotiate with Democrats on a long-term budget deal that would increase domestic and military spending above existing “sequestration” caps.
“When you go into a negotiation and say, ‘Look, the one thing we’re never going to do is shut the government down,’ you have completely given up your constitutional ability to use the power of the purse, and I think that is an abdication of responsibility,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a Boehner critic.
And holding fast to the budget caps is threatening to become a rallying point as conservatives evaluate candidates in the leadership races and exact pledges in return for their support.
“I would like to see our next leader try to renegotiate,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said. “It shouldn’t be the president saying ‘my way or the highway’ on everything.”
Boehner could try to accelerate the budget talks to spare the new speaker an early showdown, but that isn’t the end of the drama: Congress must also decide how it plans to increase the nation’s borrowing limit and handle dozens of expired and expiring tax breaks.
The Treasury Department said this month that it will exhaust its congressional borrowing authority by early November, forcing a possible repeat of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. And the perennial “tax extender” deadline follows at year’s end.
Several Republicans said Friday that Boehner will probably use his remaining weeks to pass a long-term transportation bill ahead of an Oct. 29 deadline and, with it, an extension of the Export-Import Bank. The Senate passed a six-year bill in July, attaching the bank reauthorization in the process; the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is now writing its version.
But paying for a transportation bill without raising taxes or the budget deficit has proven to be a difficult issue, and the Export-Import Bank has become a
litmus-test issue for conservatives. McCarthy, for instance, opposes the bank’s extension.
Mulvaney said Boehner’s resignation “probably” makes it more likely that a debt-ceiling or Ex-Im extension will move forward. But he warned that it might not be so simple.
“They have to pass rules in order to accomplish that,” he said, referring to the procedural measures that bring major pieces of legislation to the floor. “There’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re counting on Democrats to pass a piece of legislation, you better count on them to pass a rule.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday that he had not spoken to Boehner or his deputies about moving on the bank reauthorization, which enjoys deep Democratic support. But he said, “If the speaker wants to bring that to the floor, we’ll certainly be big supporters.”