Boehner vs. Obama: the coming showdown over spending

Jonathan Strong Contributor

If Republicans take over the House of Representatives, as they seem poised to do in November, President Obama will need to sign Republican-approved appropriations bills, meaning Obama and Ohio Rep. John Boehner — who is likely to become the Speaker of the House in a Republican-controlled Congress — must arrive at some kind of agreement at least once a year.

Otherwise, the federal government will shut down — in a repeat of a showdown between then-President Bill Clinton and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich during the 1990s.

“You’re looking at the real crux of what will be the fight coming up in the next Congress, is it’s going to be over funding type issues,” said influential Republican lobbyist Vin Weber.

Though widely viewed as a political calamity for the GOP at the time, Gingrich recently defended the government shutdown and urged a repeat performance.

“Everybody thinks [shutting down the government] was a big mistake. They’re exactly wrong,” Gingrich said in April.

Importantly, Republicans appear split on the idea roughly two months out from Election Day, according to a series of interviews with key GOP aides in the House and Senate.

One view is that “it’s a different political climate now,” as one aide put it to The Daily Caller, pointing to the widespread concern about the deficit. The other view is, “that didn’t work out so well last time, did it?” as a second aide said to TheDC.

Clearly, the exact circumstances of spending fights between the GOP and Obama will shape the political fallout from any shutdown.

The GOP is likely to take an aggressive stance on the issue. Republicans, especially conservatives, view Congress’ spending authority as the key vehicle by which the party will have real say regarding Obamacare, financial reform and the other pieces of legislation Obama has been able to enact into law.

For instance, while full repeal of the president’s health care law is implausible, Congress could restrict how the law is implemented by putting rules on how the key federal agencies spend their budget.

Beyond the policymaking the appropriations process could entail, there’s the matter of spending levels themselves.

The next Congress will likely include dozens of new conservatives, many of whom campaigned aggressively on reducing the federal deficit. Republican operatives expect House Republicans to maintain a ban on earmarks and say even the Senate GOP may enact its own earmark ban.

Weber said Tea Party activists and the general political climate will create pressure to keep spending levels lower.

“Republicans will have a hard time getting votes to pass funding bills in any event, because all these people are running out there, in the Tea Party atmosphere – they’ve seen Republicans get beat in primaries and caucuses because they have been perceived as spending so much anyway – so there’s going to be a propensity on the part of grassroots Republicans to vote against funding anyhow,” Weber said.

Besides the appropriations bills, Republicans are likely to use legislation to score political points and keep important issues fresh in voters’ minds.
Several Republicans pointed to the Clinton era for examples. Clinton, for instance, vetoed legislation banning partial birth abortion twice, which many viewed as a political wound.

Clinton also vetoed welfare reform twice before finally caving to the political pressure and then taking credit for the bill.

Like back then, Republicans will likely strive to force Obama to address issues he’d rather not. Such efforts will have the added bonus of framing Obama for the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican operatives say.

However, actually pushing legislation to Obama’s desk may prove difficult. Democrats, newly in control of both the House and Senate in 2007-2008 under President Bush, only managed it successfully a few times.

One example was a children’s health care bill Democrats forced Bush to veto twice. Another was a stem cell bill Bush vetoed.

But vastly outnumbering those efforts were the 738 bills passed in the House that never cleared the Senate. That list – a legislative graveyard of would-be laws – includes major efforts like the union-boosting “Employee Free Choice Act” as well as countless symbolic acts of lesser importance (such as the “Southern Idaho Bureau of Reclamation Repayment Act of 2007”).

On specific regulatory battles, control of Congress will offer Republicans new opportunities to influence the debate, even if Obama is still in charge at the end of the day.

Simply calling a hostile hearing on a relatively obscure regulatory issue can often scare bureaucrats away from a contentious decision an agency had been flirting with.

More in-depth examination – including use of subpoenas to extract information – could provide sharp political weapons if investigators uncover embarrassing information or potential wrongdoing.