Is John Boehner About to Get Aggressive?

Chris Frates

House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t exactly been out front on immigration reform. He hedged his bets earlier this year, waiting to see if the Senate would act. When it did, Boehner called the measure dead on arrival in the House. Now his lieutenants are taking a piecemeal approach, leaving Boehner moderating an unwieldy discussion instead of driving a legislative agenda. “I’m not going to predict what’s going to be on the floor and what isn’t going to be on the floor,” Boehner told CBS’s Bob Schieffer this week. “My job in this process is to facilitate a discussion.”

So can we expect the same kind of hands-off approach to this fall’s looming fiscal showdowns? “Is anybody in the Congress more focused on cutting spending than I am? I don’t think so,” Boehner said. Translation: He’s going to flex his influence this fall. (To be fair, Boehner disputes that he’s been hands-off on immigration, arguing, “Nobody spent more time trying to fix a broken immigration system than I have.” That’s a stretch. If the Senate “Gang of Eight” didn’t spend more time trying to fix the immigration system, they certainly had more success.)

GOP lawmakers and aides say Boehner plans to assume a more aggressive posture in the upcoming fights to fund the government and raise the debt limit than he’s displayed so far on immigration. Deadlines, politics, and the enormous consequences of inaction all make the stakes much higher in the coming fiscal battles. “The only two things that really risk the Republican majority in 2014 would be if we shut down the government or if we defaulted on the debt. So I think these demand real leadership,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a friend of the speaker’s. “I do think those are far more important than immigration, because, again, they’ve got real-live consequences and real dates.”

When Republicans return from the August recess, they will have just nine legislative days to figure out how to fund the government before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Republican leaders are considering a short-term funding measure tied to the across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in earlier this year, said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., a Boehner ally. But, he said, because Democrats largely oppose tying the government-funding measure to the lowered spending levels, Boehner will need a majority of his conference to pass the bill, a proposition that could prove difficult. During last year’s fiscal-cliff talks, the speaker failed to win support for his Plan B, and just last month he failed to pass a farm bill. Making matters worse, time is not on his side. Waiting until the eleventh hour, Westmoreland said, is “not a good thing.”

Republicans are taking a negotiating position that mirrors President Obama’s approach to last year’s fiscal cliff. In those talks, Obama was able to win tax hikes on the wealthy because rates were set to increase on everyone if no deal was made. This time around, the sequester cuts are already law, and Republicans don’t intend to change that as part of a deal to keep the government open, according to House GOP leadership aides.

What Republicans aren’t saying yet is where they are willing to deal. “We’ll have to get specific in the fall when they’re going through negotiations,” one aide said. “But, until then, you probably won’t see anything specific. There’s no good reason to play your cards now.”

House Republicans say they want to bang out a deal to keep the government running before turning to a debt-limit increase. They continue to rally behind the “Boehner Rule,” the speaker’s requirement that any increase in the nation’s borrowing limit be met with commensurate cuts and entitlement reforms. It’s a point Boehner made again this week: “We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending. It’s as simple as that.… I believe the so-called Boehner Rule is the right formula for getting that done.”

For his part, Obama has said he won’t negotiate over the debt limit, a point press secretary Jay Carney reiterated this week. “We’ve made clear we’re not going to negotiate with Congress over Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills that it’s already racked up. We’re just not,” he said. “And it is an irresponsible thing to even flirt with, because the flirtation itself does harm to our economy.”

But Republicans aren’t buying it. “The president’s living in a fantasy land if he thinks he can get the votes to raise it without some concessions on spending,” Cole said. “Republicans are willing to vote with him to raise it, but they need something that changes the long-term arc of the debt.” Cole added that Republicans want to talk to the president about cuts he’s suggested in the past, including changing how entitlement benefits are calculated and means-testing for Medicare beneficiaries.

Unlike immigration reform, which has fractured House Republicans, the party’s lawmakers are much more comfortable talking about fiscal issues. “We’re stronger when we lead when it comes to dealing with the Senate and the president,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, a member of Boehner’s leadership team. “And we need to bring our conference together.”

Boehner is ready to lead. What remains to be seen is whether his conference will follow.