The same question keeps popping up: Why doesn’t Speaker John Boehner just pass a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government? It’s a ubiquitous query at the Capitol, and it was asked many times this afternoon as House Republicans left their closed-door conference meeting. But most Republicans, when pressed by reporters, rolled their eyes. They know what Boehner knows: A clean CR has never been an option. Peter King of New York and his allies may want one, but the leadership privately believes it’d almost certainly raise tensions within the ranks and cripple their negotiating position.
Instead, the leadership is digging in for an extended impasse with Senate Democrats. Based on my latest conversations with insiders, their plan isn’t to eventually whip Republicans toward a clean CR and back down after a few days of messaging the shutdown, as some have believed; it’s to keep fighting, and, in the process, preserve the House GOP’s fragile unity — and maybe, if they’re lucky, win a concession from Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
But that unity, more than anything, is critical for Boehner, especially as the debt limit nears. Per his allies, his fear is, if he brings up a clean CR, he’d be seen as conceding to Reid, who’s seen as the villain of villains within the House GOP. Thirty to forty conservatives would likely revolt against such a maneuver, and so would their backers in the conservative movement. In the press, he’d likely be cheered for a profile in courage; within the House, the decision would be seen by his critics on the right as a betrayal of the highest order. There is nothing they detest more than the idea of caving, and Boehner knows that.
Now, Boehner is aware that, on paper, potentially more than 100 House Republicans would be open to a clean CR should he bring one to the floor. But the internal chaos such a move could cause could be devastating, and with a major debt-limit battle approaching, he won’t let a CR vote divide his conference. That’s also why, on Monday, he took to the floor to personally whip the rule vote for his final CR proposal. He wanted to make sure King wasn’t creating a stir with his clean-CR pitch, and he wanted to remind members that sticking together was the key to surviving a showdown.
Pushing back against Reid and forcing him to cut a deal is another leadership objective. Behind the scenes, they’re irritated by his daily killing of anything the House passes and are eager to make sure he shares some of the political pain from the shutdown. There’s no rush to give him what he wants. Besides, many House Republicans believe Senate Democrats are only hanging with Reid on every vote because he has assured them the House GOP will break, and they think if they can incrementally put pressure on Reid’s conference, his grip could be weakened.
So, it’s no surprise those two goals — sustained House GOP unity and a chance at breaking Reid — were the big themes of Tuesday’s conference meeting. Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor decided to move forward with piecemeal appropriation bills to fund parts of the government, which garnered significant Republican support on Tuesday evening. It’s something conservatives like, since the bills don’t cleanly and fully restore funding, and it’s something the leadership thinks Senate Democrats could be tempted to back. Expect similar votes in the coming days.
The leadership knows this course won’t be easy to hold, and, as ever, any day in the House GOP can be unpredictable. But they’re going to keep at it, knowing conservatives will only tolerate so much, and crossing their fingers that Reid shares the blame and, if pricked in certain spots, starts to bargain.