Earlier this month, Washington journalists were reporting that Congress might be headed for another government shutdown at the end of the month. But the risk of shutdown has evaporated: A bill to fund the government through mid-December is sailing through the Senate and is expected to pass the House.
This isn't how shutdown fights usually go — over the past few years, Congress has marched right up to (or even past) deadlines before making a decision. But what's different this time is that Speaker of the House John Boehner announced on Friday that he'll resign in mid-October.
Boehner's resignation made it possible to avoid a shutdown this month — but might have made it more likely that the government will shut down in mid-December. That's because the next speaker will still be leading a restive Republican majority full of members eager to confront President Obama on issues such as government spending and Planned Parenthood.
The power to avoid a shutdown was always in Boehner's hands
Right now, the federal government is funded through September 30. It's up to Congress to pass a bill before midnight on Wednesday that extends that funding. Before last Friday, it wasn't clear that would happen: Conservative Republicans in the House refused to vote for any bill that funded Planned Parenthood, and Democrats refused to vote for any bill that didn't.
This isn't an unfamiliar situation. It's led to several near-shutdowns, and one actual shutdown in October 2013 (over funding for the Affordable Care Act). The reason for this was the "Hastert Rule," named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, which stated that a Republican speaker should only bring bills to the floor if they are supported by a majority of House Republicans.
But after taking things to the brink (and in October 2013, over the brink) of a shutdown, Boehner eventually chose to just ignore the Hastert Rule. That allowed him to pass compromise legislation with a majority of Democratic votes and a minority of Republican ones.
So the question this time around was whether Boehner would break the Hastert Rule before the deadline — or whether he would stick to the rule long enough to provoke an actual shutdown in hopes of getting Democrats to blink first.
Boehner's resignation lets him muscle through a funding bill now
It was generally expected that Boehner wouldn't let the government shut down. In fact, the Senate already started work on a clean funding bill to prepare to send to the House by the September 30 deadline.
But the same conservative Republicans pressuring Boehner to defund Planned Parenthood were also threatening to oust him as speaker if he didn't. Even if he had survived that vote, his standing with his fellow House Republicans — and, therefore, his ability to lead the House majority — could have been seriously damaged in the process.
So on Friday, Boehner announced that he'd step down in October, from both the speakership and his seat in Congress. The announcement means he no longer needs to care about his standing within the House Republican caucus. So he'll be able to bring a clean funding bill to the floor without worrying about what conservatives think. And while it might be a little harder for him to whip Republican votes for the bill now that he's a lame duck, it shouldn't be hard to cobble together a majority by combining 30 or so Republican votes with Democrats who are happy to sign on to a bill that keeps the government open.
The breather only lasts until December 11
The next funding bill is currently working its way through the Senate, and will come to the House sometime Wednesday. Congress was supposed to fund the government for the entire 2016 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. But instead, the Senate bill only funds the government through December 11. But congressional leaders are hoping to stop kicking the can down the road. By the time December rolls around, they're hoping to have worked out new funding levels for the rest of the 2016 budget year.
Of course, the reason that hasn't been happening is because it is hard. Democrats are likely to call for increases in domestic spending. Republicans are likely to oppose them. Some Republicans will call for military spending to be increased; others will say that overall spending levels are still too high. There definitely won't be a solution that makes everyone happy.
The question is whether any group will be unhappy enough to refuse to support a compromise — and whether that group will be big enough to stand in the way of the bill. If so, we would be headed for another shutdown.
And the Planned Parenthood controversy will still be around, too. There's no indication that the conservatives pushing to defund Planned Parenthood this year are going to give up by December — why would they, when some pundits see Boehner's resignation as a victory for them? Nor is there any indication that Democrats would be willing to pass a 2016 funding bill that defunded Planned Parenthood.
So the fight in mid-December will be, if anything, more likely to result in a government shutdown than the fight this month was — even before Boehner announced his retirement.
McCarthy has a reputation for listening to his caucus
Leading up to December 11, you can expect Republican leaders to say that they have the majority in both houses of Congress, they're only willing to fund the government if Planned Parenthood is defunded, and that if Democrats disagree, it will be their fault that the government shuts down. That's what they always say in the run-up to a deadline.
The question is what will happen when the deadline actually approaches and the speaker himself has to make a decision. Will Boehner's successor follow the Hastert Rule, and move only the bills that have the support of his caucus — even if they can't survive a Senate filibuster or a presidential veto? Or will he follow the Boehner strategy, breaking the Hastert Rule if that's what it takes to keep the government open?
We just don't know yet.
We know who Boehner's successor as speaker is likely to be: Kevin McCarthy of California, who's now the House majority leader. But we don't know what kind of speaker McCarthy will be.
McCarthy isn't a particularly outspoken conservative, and he's backed Boehner in previous violations of the Hastert Rule. But that just means he was loyal to Boehner as a member of the leadership team — it doesn't tell us much about whether McCarthy would be willing to make the same play.
Some House conservatives are already favorably comparing McCarthy to his predecessor. Where Boehner was divisive, they say, McCarthy is more of a listener, leading by building consensus within the party. The implication: Where Boehner told Republicans what was going to happen, whether they liked it or not, McCarthy is more likely to follow where his party leads.
McCarthy is likely to need buy-in from conservatives to get things done — especially if one of them gets elected to leadership
It's worth remembering, though, that Boehner didn't dictate decisions from the top down when he started out as speaker. That happened only after he learned the hard way what happened when he listened to the party's conservative wing.
In the summer of 2011, the US was facing a deadline on raising the debt ceiling — something conservatives didn't want to do unless they got the government to seriously cut spending in return. Boehner attempted to work out a "grand bargain" with President Obama, agreeing on a package of tax hikes and spending cuts. The assumption was that Boehner would then be able to persuade House Republicans to get on board with the bargain, while Obama could whip Senate Democrats.
Obama and Boehner actually found common ground. But then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was an ally of the party's conservative wing, didn't like the deal. With only days before the debt ceiling deadline, Cantor persuaded Boehner to walk away.
The parties ultimately agreed on a bill that Obama signed on the last possible day. But it didn't look good for Republicans — Moody's actually downgraded the US's bond rating because of the dysfunction involved in raising the ceiling. After that, Boehner started taking a tighter hand with the rest of his leadership team — making sure they were working in concert with his goals for the whole caucus, not their own ideological loyalties.
If McCarthy does want to follow in the Boehnerian tradition — keeping government running, even if it meant violating the Hastert Rule — he'll have to make sure the rest of the Republican leadership team is on board. And that will depend on how the rest of the leadership elections go.
First of all, McCarthy's own election isn't assured. He doesn't have serious opposition (his only opponent, Florida Republican Daniel Webster, isn't expected to rival his support), but he still needs to win a majority of votes among all members of the House — and since the Democrats won't vote for him, that means he can't lose more than 30 votes among Republicans. That might put the conservative Freedom Caucus, which includes Boehner's biggest opponents, in position to play kingmaker: They might endorse McCarthy only if he makes some promises to them about the way he'll run things.
More important, though, just as Cantor was able to sway Boehner during the 2011 debt ceiling talks, a powerful conservative majority leader might be able to ensure that the speaker isn't too conciliatory toward Obama — or, if he is, that he's not able to get enough Republican votes to pass any compromise bills. And the majority leader election is going to be tightly contested. While who exactly will run isn't yet settled, the election will include at least one current member of leadership (Steve Scalise) and at least one conservative challenger (likely Tom Price).
If a conservative Boehner critic becomes the next majority leader, it might not much matter what Kevin McCarthy wants to do — he might not have the support from his own team he needs to whip 30 Republican votes to join Democrats, pass a bill, and keep the government running past mid-December.