Speaker John Boehner has a democratic problem. Not with the party, but with the system.
All Boehner has to do is let democracy run its course, and the current crisis over the government shutdown and the looming crisis over raising the debt ceiling would end.
Boehner says the votes aren’t there in the House to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government. To which critics say: Prove it. Let a clean CR bill come to the floor and see what happens. If it fails to pass, as Boehner claims it would (though his ability to count is in doubt these days), the Republican position would be strengthened. He would be able to say to President Obama and Senate Democrats that they have to deal to get the government running again and head off a default.
Boehner knows the opposite would happen. A clean CR would pass with unanimous (or close to unanimous) Democratic votes and a smattering of moderate Republicans in support, enough to reach a majority. So instead of a democratic solution to the crisis, Boehner hides behind the so-called Hastert rule which requires a majority of the majority (that is a majority of Republicans) to approve a measure in caucus before the speaker will bring it to the floor.
Boehner’s unwillingness to allow a vote on a clean CR allows him -- so far -- to keep his job. It is also why he is now thrashing about, looking for a way out of the blind alley down which the tea party extremists on his right flank have led him and his party.
His current solution, which shows some promise, is to raise the debt limit for six weeks, perhaps in return for some vague commitment on Obama’s part to take part in future budget talks and a ban on the Treasury from using extraordinary measures to pay the nation’s bills.
The Republican proposal does not include reopening the government. In a meeting at the White House late Thursday afternoon, the president reportedly pressed the GOP leaders on ending the shutdown, asking repeatedly “what’s it going to take.”
Boehner’s latest proposals amount to a recognition that the Republicans are being hurt by the shutdown and by the threat of a default. Realizing they must find a way to end the impasse, Republicans have stopped talking about defunding Obamacare, which was the original the reason they refused to pass a CR.
Cooler heads in the GOP realize Democrats will never surrender the Affordable Health Care Act, the president’s signature accomplishment. Republican leaders also have read the polls. The latest Gallup Poll shows a ten-point drop in Republican favorability among the American public in the last month. The current 28 percent approval rating for the GOP is the lowest favorability number recorded by either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992.
Business groups are questioning tea party influence within the party, further undermining the resolve of House leaders to continue the crisis. Evidence is mounting that important business groups and trade associations -- the backbone of GOP fundraising -- are considering mounting primary challenges against Republican lawmakers responsible for the political standoff in Washington.
So instead of allowing a democratic solution, which could end the crisis in hours, Boehner is looking to wiggle his way out, discussing a possible six-week debt limit extension and then hoping a way out of the shutdown can be found next week.
None of this, however, reckons with the tea party. Those 80 or so recalcitrant extremists in the Republican Party, who have forced Boehner into the corner in which he now finds himself, may yet torpedo his latest proposals.