Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement to retire at the end of October has shifted the landscape on Capitol Hill and may presage an even more dramatic shift later this year.
No longer beholden to the "Freedom Caucus" – the far right flank of the GOP, Boehner has the flexibility to push more moderate legislation through the House over the next 32 days. The question is, how much can he really get done and what are the short- and long-term implications for the next House Speaker?
In the short-term, the retirement announcement has provided breathing room for the Speaker. The chances of an October 1 government shutdown have nearly evaporated, bipartisan passage of a drama-free debt ceiling bill is more likely and there is hope for a compromise on a transportation/tax reform package. Without the constant threat of a motion to "vacate the Speaker," other bills could hitch a ride on a fast track, including reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
Don't get too optimistic. It's also clear the next Speaker will have to deal with the consequences of an unhinged Boehner. Next in line to the Speakership is Boehner friend and ally, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California. The more bipartisan legislation that moves in October, the higher the level of conservative frustration later in the GOP caucus. To be elected Speaker, McCarthy can only lose 29 votes from the GOP ranks – 24 of whom already voted against Boehner in January. Thus, McCarthy can only lose five more Republicans to avoid an all-out scramble for the Speaker's position.
If McCarthy is tied to the Speaker's actions over the next month, his ascension to Speaker could be put in jeopardy. So Boehner is still going to have to balance the risks and rewards of moving legislation in his final days. Bipartisan action would continue to stoke tensions within the Republican Party and could bring the confrontation past the boiling point to a full revolt. Boehner is a master politician though, so he may manage to clear the decks of some of the most contentious issues and leave the institution he loves on a high note.
Here is some quick analysis on how key provisions could be impacted by the Speaker's departure:
September 30 Budget Showdown/Shutdown – Boehner is no longer beholden to the far right and word from GOP leadership is the Speaker will offer up a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded through December 11. The CR will not contain the controversial repeal of funding for Planned Parenthood. Without the Planned Parenthood funding repeal, the GOP will lose 30-50 votes for the CR and Republicans will need to rely on Democrats to pass the bill. The measure will likely pass by Wednesday evening, just in time for the September 30 end of fiscal year deadline.
Debt Limit Increase – Another casualty of Boehner's departure could be a showdown over the debt limit. With an historic debt of $19 trillion, the country needs to increase its credit limit once again before it defaults. Unfortunately, the debt limit increase is becoming an annual affair.
The timeline for default is not exact, but will likely happen in November. It's expected Boehner will try to act before he leaves office to clear the decks for the next Speaker. Typically, the Freedom Caucus has been steadfast in its opposition to raising the debt limit without a dollar-for-dollar cut in spending. The Obama Administration meanwhile has said the debt limit is not a tool for negotiation, even though in 2011, that's how we got the Super Committee and Sequestration.
Transportation and Tax Reform– The fate of the transportation bill also could benefit. Word out of leadership and the House T&I Committee is that Chairman Bill Shuster and Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan have a six-year package that is ready to be unveiled. With the blessing of the Speaker, a transportation/tax reform package could receive an expedited path to the floor of the House. Many Freedom Caucus members have opposed additional federal spending on transportation. October could be the perfect time to get a popular bipartisan bill through the House.
Sequestration Cap – Without another 2013 Murray/Ryan type of agreement, the two-year sequestration relief bill will expire October 1. Both Republicans and Democrats want to lift the cap, but for different reasons. Republicans generally want more defense spending, while Democrats want more non-defense spending. It is hard to be optimistic that the Speaker can reach a deal to lift the spending caps before he leaves. However, there will certainly be pressure on him to expedite negotiations and resolve the issue.
December 11 – The likelihood of a government shutdown on December 11 has gone up significantly. An emboldened Freedom Caucus, a lame duck President Obama and presidential politics are could conspire to make this a tumultuous December. It will take fancy footwork from both sides to come together on the FY16 spending package.