Will House Speaker John Boehner Shut Down the Government?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 29 2013 4:56 PM

What Will Boehner Do?

The ball is in his court. Will he allow the government shutdown to go forward or cut a deal conservatives will hate?

With less than two days until the government runs out of money, the clock is ticking and no one is negotiating. House Republicans voted Saturday on a new set of amendments it would like to tie to continued funding of the government, and Senate Democrats promptly said, “Nuts to you!” They're going to vote to table the amendments on Monday, which will kick the issue back to the House.

Depending on when the bill returns, Republicans may try one more gambit to chip away at Obamacare, but time is growing short—the deadline is Monday at midnight. (Update, Sept. 30: There was talk among some in the House about attaching the so-called "Vitter amendment" to another funding bill and sending it back to the Senate. That measure, named after the Louisiana senator who sponsored it, would eliminate government subsidies for health care of members of Congress and their staff. According to one GOP aide the measure is losing some support because members have staffers and family who have pre-existing conditions and special needs and would benefit from keeping the subsidy which was an attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to fix the negative treatment of congressional employees under the ACA.) After the House Monday gambit fails to win Democratic support, the decision whether to keep the government open will fall squarely on Speaker John Boehner. He has two options: He can allow a vote on the Senate bill that passed (with Democratic votes) on Friday to fund the government until Nov. 15 or permit the shutdown to go forward, as a way to pressure the White House and satisfy his most conservative members.

All reporting indicates that Boehner does not want a shutdown. The Chamber of Commerce, business leaders, and Republicans worried about the party’s national reputation are putting pressure on him not to allow it. But if he permits the Senate funding measure to make it to the floor, he would need Democratic votes to pass it. That would lead to a sharp reaction from those conservatives who have been making his life so exciting lately.

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Some Republican aides, White House officials, and even a couple of Senate Republicans I've talked to recently have floated the idea that Boehner might pursue a "hot-stove" gambit: He would allow the shutdown to take place to teach conservatives a lesson. They'd see how unpopular it was and they'd come back in line, allowing Republicans to close ranks in advance of the debt limit debate, where some Republicans think they'll have more leverage over the president. (They’d have more leverage, they think, because the president in the end couldn’t possibly allow the economic calamity that would follow from a default.)

There are other versions of this theory, too: That Boehner has to allow a shutdown because as much as he doesn't want one, he really doesn't want to risk not raising the debt limit. A shutdown would allow conservatives to stick to their guns now—showing their constituents that they were capable of it—because they won’t want to engage in such brinksmanship on the debt ceiling.

If Boehner didn't already enjoy a good cigarette, this is the kind of on-the-job tension that could lead a man to start a nasty habit.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.