Congress has just five voting days left to avoid a government shutdown, and House Republicans still don't know what they want to do about it. Democrats are betting the Republican civil war over Obamacare will put the blame squarely on the GOP if the government comes to a halt on Oct. 1. But even if that fight gives Democrats a political edge, they could still lose ground on the top priority for their own party: The end of sequestration.
To keep the government running after Sept. 30, GOP Speaker John Boehner needs to find a spending bill that can pass the House—and so far he's been unable to persuade enough of his Republican members to come along, given the right flank's insistence on linking the budget extension to defunding Obamacare.
Last week, he came up with a workaround meant to appease House conservatives without hitting a dead-end with Senate Democrats: The bill would fund the government at 2013 levels until Dec. 15, continuing sequestration, along with a non-binding vote to defund Obamacare.
But Boehner couldn't get enough of his GOP colleagues on board to pass his short-term budget fix, forcing them to delay the vote and leaving even less time on the clock. As Jonathan Strong reported, Boehner is short about 17 votes as conservative House members have rebelled against his proposal, arguing—rightfully—that the Obamacare vote is an empty symbolic gesture.
Instead, 42 House conservatives are supporting an alternative bill from Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican, that would delay and defund Obamacare, increase defense funding, and maintain sequestration for non-defense programs. The legislation would be dead on arrival in the Senate, not to mention the White House.
The Republican civil war has put Boehner in a tough spot with no clear exit. The House GOP is "still figuring out what's acceptable to its own caucus," says Stan Collender, a former House budget aide. "Can they convince their caucus to delay the fight until they have a strategy? My guess is that it's 50-50." So a shutdown is still a possibility. Though Republicans would be likely to take the blame, it might have its own silver lining for Boehner: It would show his caucus's right flank that he's willing to stick to a hard line and "change the politics as voters get angry," Collender says.
Alternatively, Boehner could either succeed in getting enough votes for his budget compromise, or else push his legislation further to the right without going so far as to slam the door on the Senate. But the path is far from clear, which has prompted a lot of hand-wringing from congressional Republicans. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already indicated that he may try to buy more time by extending the legislative session for a few days before Sept. 30.
Democrats, in the mean time, have been happy to sit back and let the Republican drama play out. House Democrats are refusing to help Boehner pass his spending bill, knowing that Republicans would take the blame if it failed. "For many people, the question is, 'why would I help Republicans pass something I oppose?'" says one House Democratic aide. If Republicans shut down the government over Obamacare, the backlash would give Democrats more leverage in the budget negotiations, their argument goes.
But while Democrats may win the short-term political battle, the longer-term consequences could still tilt in the Republicans' favor in terms of government spending. Despite their party's vow to end sequestration, Senate Democrats have refused to push the government to the brink over the issue: They've already indicated that Boehner's short-term budget, known as a Continuing Resolution, would be fine by them.
"If they can find a way to pass a clean, short-term CR, the Senate is likely to pass it and continue working on a long-term deal to replace sequestration," says one Senate Democratic aide, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the ongoing debate.
So long as Boehner's major obstacle is his right flank and their fixation on Obamacare, the resolution of that fight will be seen as a concession to Democrats. Meanwhile, the rest of Boehner's proposal—a GOP budget that's $70 billion lower than what Democrats have proposed—will have become the starting point for the negotiations, even if Republicans walk in politically bruised from their infighting.