This week has been consumed with a public fight over whether in the backroom a deal was reached over a "target number" of spending cuts. Democrats say there was a deal. One reason it is important to insist on this is so that if negotiations break down, they can say Republicans were just too ideologically rigid. Boehner has insisted that no number was cast in stone, and that he and Republican leaders are fighting to wring every spending cut they can out of the negotiations. Boehner would like the cuts to be as large as possible. That's his policy preference, and it'll make his ultimate sales job easier. But since he knows the total cuts won't be as big as some House Republicans would like, he knows they might accuse him of selling out too early, so he must work extra hard to show he's shedding his last ounce of blood to get a deal with spending cuts as large his conservatives want.
The fact that negotiations are even taking place helps Democrats with a previous political problem. When the debate over funding government for the rest of the year started, Democrats felt pressure because Republicans had characterized them as unwilling to cut government in the slightest. But now Democrats are now considering substantial cuts in this fiscal year, which means this is no longer an argument about whether to cut but what to cut. Republicans may still win that fight, but it's a harder one, because it devolves into a comparison between actual programs to cut.
If there eventually is a deal that Boehner has to sell to his conservative members, he will rely on a variety of arguments. The first is that they're winning. Whatever the deal is, it will be far more in cuts than Democrats originally said they'd go for. Second, he'll argue that Republicans need to show they can govern by meeting their commitments to keep government open. The third is that if they have to go hunting for Democratic votes, that will require making the bill more attractive to Democrats, which will necessarily be less conservative. And Friday Boehner offered a new one: A shutdown will actually cost the government because of broken contracts.
Boehner can also argue that Republicans will be able to continue the fight to shrink government next week when they begin debate on federal spending for the coming decade. House budget chairman Paul Ryan is expected to offer a budget Tuesday that should please fiscal conservatives.
As Boehner negotiates, he is keeping some important numbers in his head. He can lose 23 members of his caucus before he has to start depending on Democratic votes. Democrats have been pushing the idea all week that the crazy Tea Party members will desert Boehner en masse, which means even if he can agree to a deal, it won't pass the House. As my colleague Dave Weigel reports, the caricature doesn't fit. One senior House aide said that it's possible there will be enough in the compromise so that Boehner can make the sale to his caucus without needing Democratic votes. (This would be the equivalent of an inside straight in poker.)
If he does need Democrats, there are 29 fiscally conservative Blue Dogs who might be available. If he gets all of them, he can lose 52 members of his caucus. He lost 54 the last time he asked his members to temporarily fund the government. Some of those conservative members might get back onboard now that the stakes are higher. On the other hand, as one veteran Republican vote-counter pointed out, they've all been home since that vote and been heralded as heroes for sticking to their principles. In the end, Boehner will have to rely on the president and Democratic leaders to persuade their members to join in.
The speaker is also keeping some other things in mind. He doesn't want to fail on his first big test as speaker. A shutdown would be a failure. He also doesn't want to be seen as a captive of the Tea Party-backed members of his caucus. This would make him look weak. Also, the Tea Party is unpopular, as a CNN poll out this week pointed out.
Late Friday afternoon, Senate Democrats were continuing the barroom portion of the theater, accusing Republicans of being fixed on "these ridiculous riders," as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it. Still, he said, progress was being made but more slowly than he'd like. There is a possibility that if the deal isn't reached until later next week, the House three-day deadline might require the government to shut down for the weekend. Or, a temporary funding resolution might come up that funds the government for a couple of days.
If a government shutdown is averted, it will be the third time the fears about a crisis will have been unfounded. The reason will have been the same all along. Despite all of the talk and threats of a government closure, both sides have always known that a shutdown would be disastrous for everyone.
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