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House GOP already walking away from debt-ceiling deal

September 21, 2011 |  5:38 pm

House Speaker John Boehner
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has trouble not only cutting deals on behalf of his restive caucus but also getting his members to abide by them. That's because the "tea party" wing of his party seems much more eager to crusade than to govern.

Witness what happened Wednesday, when the House was rushing to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep government functioning. Congress hasn't managed to pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 (one consequence of the extended brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling), so unless it passes a continuing resolution to fund the federal bureaucracy, agencies will shut down en masse. The only exception would be "excepted" employees, such as soldiers overseas and air-traffic controllers, who'd continue to work with their pay deferred.

Boehner thought he'd have some Democratic support for the measure, despite a provision cutting $1.5 billion from a loan-guarantee program for advanced-technology vehicles to pay for an additional $1 billion in disaster relief. Among the beneficiaries of that program has been Ford, which has created an estimated 33,000 jobs with the help of $5.9 billion in guarantees. But the bill drew opposition even from a top Democrat who'd previously supported the trade-off.

(It's worth noting that the loan-guarantee program has $4 billion in funds that were appropriated on an emergency basis but have sat idle for a year or more. Why every one of those dollars should remain untouched is a mystery to me.)

But hey, Republicans have a sizable majority in the House;  they don't need no stinkin' Democrats! Unless, of course, rank-and-file members of the GOP don't fall in line behind the speaker. And that's exactly what happened Wednesday when almost 50 Republicans voted against the resolution. Not because of the disaster funding squabble but because the measure's spending cuts weren't deep enough to satisfy them. The resolution went down to defeat, 230 to 195, sending the GOP leadership back to the drawing board and increasing the chance of a government shutdown.

Continuing resolutions usually take the previous year's funding and carry it forward. In this instance, however, Congress has a more precise road map for the coming fiscal year. Under the debt-ceiling agreement, which is codified as the Budget Control Act, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have already agreed on funding levels for two separate categories of programs: security related, which includes such things as the Defense Department and foreign aid, and non-security related.

In other words, lawmakers fought over this issue already. They reached a grudging consensus. You might think that would be enough, except that no decision made by this Congress, even if it was made by a supermajority, is considered binding by many House Republicans.

I can understand why the foes of the Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank law to tighten financial industry regulation, which were enacted in a previous Congress, would keep trying to repeal all or part of them even though they don't have the votes in the Senate to do so. But the Budget Control Act is the work of this Congress, and it's barely 2 months old.

Boehner's troubles remind me of a story I heard in mid-1993. President Clinton and the House leadership had pressured members to make a series of politically difficult votes, including one to raise taxes. When Democrats gathered at a retreat, some of the freshmen complained about all the tough votes they'd been asked to cast. To which Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) replied, "Welcome to the NBA."

This House isn't behaving like the major leagues. It's more like a pickup game in which the rules are in constant flux -- and a deal's a deal only until it isn't.

ALSO:

Waging 'class warfare'?

Government by brinkmanship

Meddling with monetary policy

-- Jon Healey

Photo: House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks Wednesday to the National Automobile Dealers Assn., whose members know something about negotiating. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images

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