By Mike Lillis - 09/30/13 05:27 PM EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has essentially taken the House speakership from John Boehner during the fight over federal spending, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) charged Monday.
"It's pretty clear that this whole episode is being driven by the hard-right, extreme, Tea Party elements of the Republican Party, and we're seeing that play out in the House, where Sen. Cruz is essentially running the show," Van Hollen said during a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington.
"If Speaker Boehner doesn't want to assert his leadership," he added, "then he should go ahead and turn the gavel over to Speaker Cruz, because that's what we're seeing in the House."
Boehner and other GOP leaders had initially rejected that strategy, pushing a continuing resolution (CR) that didn't condition the spending extension on the inclusion of ObamaCare provisions. They were forced to pull their bill, however, in the face of opposition from House conservatives who agree with Cruz.
What followed was a game of legislative ping-pong between the House and Senate that has left the government on the brink of a shutdown.
Boehner and GOP leaders first passed a CR that defunded ObamaCare; Senate Democrats stripped the health provisions and returned the "clean" bill to Boehner. House Republicans then amended the proposal with two attachments: one to delay ObamaCare for a year, and another to eliminate a tax on medical devices that's helping to fund the law.
The amended measure passed in the wee hours Sunday morning, sending the bill back to the Senate, where Democrats are expected Monday to quickly strip the healthcare provisions once more and return yet another "clean" proposal to the House.
If the chambers fail to reach a deal by midnight, large portions of the government would shut down.
The Senate's likely maneuver Monday confronts Boehner with the same dilemma he faced just three days ago: either pass a clean CR with the help of Democrats and face a near-certain revolt from Tea Party-backed conservatives, or attach another round of GOP amendments and send the bill back to the Senate, likely triggering a shutdown.
The GOP conference is planning to meet at 2 p.m. Monday to discuss their strategy.
Democratic leaders have scheduled their own meeting at 2:30 p.m.
Van Hollen said Monday that, although a clean CR would lose conservatives insistent on the ObamaCare provisions, Boehner would pick up enough Democratic support to pass a clean bill should he bring it to the floor. A number of Democrats, including leaders like Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.), had said earlier in the month that they couldn't support any CR that includes sequestration.
"I can't speak for everybody," Van Hollen said, "but I can confidently predict that if you put that on the floor of the House, it would, in fact, pass today. All the Speaker has to do is try. … But he refuses to do it because he knows it will pass."
Van Hollen also expressed support for a much shorter CR — a week, say — to prevent a shutdown Tuesday.
Republicans, meanwhile, have hammered Obama for what they say is the president's failure to negotiate with Congress on reaching a deal.
"No one's shutting down the government except the president," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Saturday. "The president said he won't negotiate."
The dynamics have put Boehner in the awkward position of calling on Obama to enter the discussion for the sake of a deal while simultaneously refusing to negotiate with the president for fear of a backlash from his right-most flank.
Facing pressure from conservatives in January, Boehner told his conference that he would abandon one-on-one negotiations with Obama on the budget — a vow he amplified earlier this month. The Speaker suggested Obama should negotiate instead with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Van Hollen acknowledged that Boehner is in a tough spot. But he also declined to give the Speaker a pass if the government shuts down, accusing Boehner of "feeding the beast" by catering to conservatives at the expense of economic stability.
"It is time for the Speaker to make a decision," Van Hollen said. "Either he should step aside for Sen. Cruz, or he should exert some leadership."