Back from the brink, parties armed for mega-battle over debt ceiling

John Boehner and Harry Reid went to the brink of a government shutdown, and turned back at the last possible moment.

While there is plenty of debate about which side won, one thing is clear: Washington hasn’t been this serious about budget cutting in decades.

The Speaker and Senate majority leader went deep in their respective playbooks of leverage games during the fiscal 2011 spending debate.

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Despite the tension and the glare of the media spotlight, the fledgling relationship between Boehner and Reid actually grew stronger over the last couple of months, according to sources close to both men. 

That is important because the next political crisis of raising the nation’s debt ceiling is just around the corner.

Over the weekend, Reid told The New York Times, “I don’t like [Boehner’s] legislation, but I like the way he is running the House.”

Republican lawmakers say Boehner will soon have to persuade the White House to agree to a slew of budget-cutting measures in order to raise the limit in June or July.

Other than a balanced budget amendment -- which has little chance of clearing the Senate -- that wish list has not been crafted yet. Some of those items are undoubtedly in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) 2012 budget blueprint, a plan that has been strongly criticized by congressional Democrats.

In many ways, Boehner had more riding than Reid on the shutdown.

Reid has long had the confidence of his Democratic Conference. Boehner is still feeling his way with the new Republican House majority, demonstrated when his Conference rejected his initial package of $35 billion in cuts. They also threw him a serious brushback when 54 of them defected on a short-term spending bill last month.

Just one week ago, there was plenty of chatter that Boehner was cornered by the Tea Party.

If he shut the government down, the political risks would be enormous. If he struck a deal, the right would accuse the Speaker of capitulating.

Many predicted Boehner would take a serious hit.

But he didn’t, at least not to this point.

He was greatly helped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who backed Boehner’s every move.

One prominent Republican lobbyist who does not have ties to Boehner said the Speaker played an impressive game of “three-dimensional chess.” The moves included the timely release of Ryan’s budget, getting cover from Republican senators and, most importantly, passing a House stopgap bill that highlighted funding for the troops.

A GOP aide said, “The turning point in the past week was when the Conference strongly supported the strategy Boehner outlined Monday night: to pass a troop funding bill that the president and Sen. Reid and no substantive reason to oppose. That increased Boehner’s leverage in the negotiations, which led to increased spending cuts in the final agreement.”

Reid had his moments as well. He vowed not to negotiate through the press while shrewdly telling the media he wouldn’t accept defunding Planned Parenthood.

Reid won that battle, shaping the debate as a women’s health issue, not abortion.

Boehner and Reid don’t shy away from partisan rhetoric, but they are both throwback dealmakers. They let their deputies, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), fire heated barbs back and forth.

With the White House playing a surprisingly backseat role, keeping the government running was mostly contingent on Boehner and Reid ironing out an accord that would attract support from their rank-and-file members.

A breakthrough occurred in early March when Reid offered Boehner Senate votes on the House-passed plan of $61 billion in cuts and the president’s plan.

A Democratic leadership aide said “the relief on Speaker Boehner’s face was noticeable,” pointing out that Boehner needed his freshman class to see the House bill couldn’t pass the upper chamber.

The final chapter on the fiscal 2011 bill will be written this week, and Boehner’s work is not done.

Some Tea Party lawmakers, including outspoken Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), have said they are firm no votes on the agreement.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) Friday night wasn’t subtle in expressing his displeasure, either. “I am not impressed,” he said.

After it was pointed out that Boehner received a standing ovation from House Republicans when he announced the deal Friday night, Gohmert replied, “I was not one of them [standing].”

Boehner never wanted to shutter the government, unlike former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1995. Learning from Gingrich’s mistakes, Boehner never let Democrats see him sweat.

But Boehner’s get-along persona worried some in the Republican Conference, who feared he was going to fold too early.

He didn’t, and that frustrated Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden. That persistence won Boehner points among his GOP colleagues, who trusted him to seal the deal without pressing him for specifics.

Boehner last week said there is no daylight between him and the Tea Party. Yet, there is talk of a Tea Party primary challenge of Boehner in 2012.

Boehner refrains from using the word compromise though he must find common ground to get anything done with a Democratic White House and Senate.

From a policy perspective, Boehner has triumphed. Democrats publicly said they met Boehner more than halfway in the lead up to the bipartisan deal.

Going forward, Democrats in both chambers are united against Ryan’s proposed cuts and it remains to be seen if GOP unity will crack on the aggressive budget plan.

By and large, Boehner escaped the seemingly dire predicament he was in during the shutdown talks. More trouble, however, lurks ahead.