WASHINGTON (AP) — Sometimes in politics and legislation, whether you win is less important than how you win.
That’s the dilemma facing House Speaker John Boehner as he tries to round up the votes to pass a fast-approaching spending compromise and avert a partial government shutdown by week’s end.
Boehner, R-Ohio, wants the overwhelming majority of those votes to come from his fellow Republicans, even if dozens of easily attainable Democratic votes could help carry the budget bill to victory.
The goal complicates Boehner’s task, and possibly could push the bill farther to the right. It motivates him to battle for the votes of conservative Republicans who are demanding deeper spending cuts, and greater changes to social issues such as abortion access, than the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama say they can accept.
If Boehner can argue convincingly that it’s the only route to House passage, Democrats conceivably could yield on some points they might otherwise win. At the same time, however, Boehner is trying to persuade Republicans that some compromise is inevitable.
“We control one-half of one-third of the government,” he said last week. “We can’t impose our will on the Senate.”
Eventually, both parties must decide where to draw the line in negotiations and whether to risk a government shutdown that could trigger unpredictable political fallout.
Some congressional veterans say Boehner is taking the only realistic approach for a speaker who wants to stay in power. If he cuts a deal that relies heavily on Democrats’ votes, he could alienate scores of House Republicans, who might in turn start seeking a new leader.
“You always have to please at least half your caucus, plus one,” said John Feehery, a top aide to the previous Republican speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
Hastert had a “majority of the majority” rule. It meant he would bring no major bill to the House floor unless most Republicans supported it.
It didn’t matter if every House Democrat backed the bill, which would allow it to pass with a minority of Republicans. In essence, Democrats’ votes were irrelevant to Hastert. Boehner is taking a similar approach, at least publicly.
“Not very interested,” Boehner told reporters last week when asked about forming a coalition with Democrats to pass the legislation to keep the government operating.
Lawmakers and the White House are negotiating, but all sides agree the measure should cut more than $32 billion from current-year spending. Many Republicans want deeper cuts.
Boehner has told colleagues he wants at least 218 House Republicans to vote for the spending package. That’s the magic number for passing bills in the 435-member House.
Members of both parties say Boehner probably could assemble 218 votes easily, if he didn’t care who cast them. As an example, they point to the last short-term spending bill, which passed 271-158 in mid-March. It contained $10 billion in cuts, which Democrats once called unacceptable, and kept the government running for a few more weeks.
Of the 271 “yes” votes, 186 came from Republicans and 85 from Democrats. Voting “no” were 54 Republicans. That’s more than one-fifth of Boehner’s 241-member caucus.
Lawmakers say Boehner probably could muster a similar coalition this time. But the still-unfinished six-month bill is much more contentious, publicized and significant. People close to Boehner say he wants a significantly smaller GOP defection rate.