When John Boehner announced he’d be resigning as Speaker of the House this morning, he became the first Speaker to leave the post mid-term since Jim Wright in 1989. My colleagues have already covered important aspects of Boehner’s decision, including what it means for the House leadership going forward and why Boehner had such a rough go in the position. The announcement also has important potential consequences for Congress’s most pressing policy problem: how to fund the government for the coming year.
In the short term, Boehner’s resignation has reduced the likelihood of a shutdown in the short-term. Early reports indicate that House Republicans are now committed to passing a so-called “clean” continuing resolution (CR)—that is, one that permits federal funds to flow to Planned Parenthood and keeps other government programs funded at or near their current levels until later this fall. (The expiration date in the current draft being considered by the Senate is December 11.) Why are the CR’s prospects improved? The chief opponents of such a measure in the House were the same conservative Republicans who were putting increasing pressure on Boehner to leave his post. By resigning, Boehner handed them the political victory they were seeking.
Attention has immediately turned to the question of whether solving the short term problem now has made the long term problem—funding the government for the rest of fiscal year 2016—worse. As I wrote earlier this week, the terms of the debate over a longer-term budget deal are different than those that have characterized the recent battle over a short-term agreement. The principal axis of conflict over the past several weeks has been Planned Parenthood, and the major source of uncertainty about the prospects for a shutdown was whether Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could devise and execute a strategy to accommodate the more conservative members of their caucuses. As with shutdown showdowns in October 2013 (over the Affordable Care Act) and December 2014 (over Obama’s immigration action), the messaging on both sides was straightforward. Republicans could identify a single, specific policy priority popular with their base on which they were taking a principled stand, and Democrats could respond by accusing their opponents of playing politics with the federal budget.
In negotiations over a long-term deal, however, there is not one axis of conflict, but several, and the House GOP will head into these talks with a new quarterback. But will threatening another shutdown be as effective? On one hand, if Boehner’s own experience in early 2011 is any indication, the new Speaker may feel like he needs to take a hard line, especially in a more complicated negotiating environment. In the first major appropriations battle after assuming the speakership, Boehner—then facing a Democratically-controlled Senate and Obama in the White House—brokered a deal that reduced federal spending by $38 billion for the rest of the year. The new Speaker may likely feel emboldened or compelled to attempt the same.
At the same time, Democrats have been united behind a consistent strategy all summer: the path to a deal to fund the government for 2016 goes through relieving the limits on discretionary spending put in place by the Budget Control Act (BCA). In her press conference responding to Boehner’s resignation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reiterated this point; she also reminded the audience that Democrats want any non-defense discretionary offsets to be matched dollar-for-dollar by defense cuts. McConnell and other Senate Republicans have expressed a willingness to negotiate on the BCA caps, and the fact that the House will have a new Speaker does not change McConnell’s need to build a coalition of sixty votes in the Senate for any measure funding the government.
Ten weeks—the time between October 1 and a potential new deadline of December 11—is an eternity in congressional negotiating time, and many developments—including the identity of the new Speaker—could reshape the negotiating environment. Regardless of what happens between now and then, however, the terms of debate have been shifted, and the path to a resolution has many more moving parts.