Lame-Duck Boehner Looks to Clear Policy Decks

House Speaker John Boehner arrives for his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on July 29, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Speaker John Boehner’s surprise announcement that he will retire from Congress at the end of October has put most of the House legislative work on hold. A possible showdown this week over federal funding for Planned Parenthood has evaporated as the House grasps with new leadership elections scheduled for next week.

On Wednesday, the House is expected to pass another temporary measure to extend federal funding through early December. The action will keep the government open and put off potential debates over Planned Parenthood, defense spending, the Obama Administration’s deal with Iran and a host of other issues.

The House action will continue the budget status quo that has ruled Washington for the last four years; all existing federal programs continue at current funding levels and substantive policy debates are delayed into the future.

In this instance, the Senate will pass whatever basic level of short-term funding can pass muster with enough Democrats to remove the threat of a filibuster and the House will endorse that action. Just enough conservatives will be allowed to vote against the plan as can be counter-balanced by Democrats willing to support it.

Republican leadership offices will sigh relief and issue press releases that they have again “managed” the government, the media will ready its knives for the next debate and the public will be a little more disgusted with the politicians in Washington.

In many ways, its a fitting coda for the Boehner-McConnell era of Republican governance. It also goes a long way to explain why three candidates who have never held elective office are currently dominating the campaign for the Republican nomination for President.

The action this week, shaped by Boehner’s resignation, will avert a government shutdown right now. It is a still a real possibility in December, when this week’s spending fix expires and the government runs into its debt ceiling. That debate will also come as the Republican nomination fight nears a climax, with both Iowa and New Hampshire ready to cast its first votes early in the new year. It is also very likely that there will be a new foreign policy or economic crisis by then.

There also will be an new Republican leadership team in the House, ready to show it has absorbed at least some lesson from the current Republican voter anger. It is, to put it mildly, a volatile combination.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Boehner and McConnell have launched a final effort to negotiate a major budget deal with the White House before the Speaker leaves office.

“How much of that could come together before Speaker Boehner leaves, I have no earthly idea. But we have a number of different things that need to be addressed, and the deadline is December the 11th,” McConnell told reporters.

For the next month, Speaker Boehner has a kind of legislative honeymoon. He is certainly freer to rely on Democrat votes in the House to pass legislation, because his future is already determined. Many Republicans can go along with measures they wouldn’t otherwise support because the action can be stored away with Boehner’s speakership.

Resolving many of these issues in the manner that Republican leaders prefer while Boehner is still Speaker also takes pressure off McConnell. He can let Boehner take point on the negotiations and assure conservatives that he will hold the line against Obama with a new Speaker.

It is too easy to simply say Boehner and McConnell don’t want to fight for Republican principles. They only want to fight, though, when they are assured of victory at the outset. They will also only engage in a fight where the public is already clearly on their side. They will not do the heavy lifting to persuade the public.

They also won’t engage in a fight where media criticism will go anywhere beyond its normal bias against Republicans. They may be able to handle a piously critical op-ed in the Washington Post, but as soon as they get bad press on the Today show, they will fold without even looking again at their cards.

That is the true legacy of Boehner-McConnell. The republic will have to endure it for at least another month.


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