The budget battle is likely to be a defining moment in the legacy of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - With the government shutdown entering its third week and a debt-ceiling deadline around the corner, House Speaker John Boehner has an ever-narrower set of options to resolve an increasingly high-stakes fiscal showdown.
But the Ohio Republican seems on solid ground in at least one place: the speaker's chair. For the moment at least, Boehner has managed to unite his fractious Republican conference behind a hard-line - if shifting - strategy, winning plaudits from the rebel GOP faction that once tried to oust him.
"I think he's doing a great job so far," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. Massie participated in an unsuccessful coup against Boehner in January, when Boehner narrowly won a second term as speaker.
Other more moderate Republicans were less enthusiastic about the strategy, but not about Boehner's leadership.
"He's trying. He's trying to do what he can," said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio. "Unfortunately, I think there was not a lot that anybody could do to avoid this path. A bunch of us wanted to avoid it. But it's where we are."
How long that GOP harmony will last is unclear. Public opinion is quickly souring on the party's position. And even Boehner's strongest allies say they're uncertain about his next move.
There's no question the outcome of this standoff will go a long way toward determining Boehner's political fortunes.
"It's a defining moment in his speakership," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a long-time Boehner ally. "This is like the witching hour."
In the pot, Cole said, is a mix of politically explosive ingredients - from Obamacare to debt reduction, "all basically converged into a single opportunity for either disaster or negotiated success."
What began as a partisan feud over Republican efforts to tie continued federal funding to a dismantling of President Obama's signature health care law has now spilled over into a battle over raising the nation's debt ceiling. U.S. Treasury Jacob Lew has said Congress needs to increase the debt limit before Oct. 17, when he estimates the government will have only $30 billion to meet its obligations.
Boehner's latest gambit, in which he offered Obama a short-term increase in the debt limit in exchange for broad deficit-reduction talks, jump-started negotiations but didn't produce any immediate result. The White House has not embraced the proposal, and some Republicans in Boehner's conference were lukewarm about it.
Throughout this crisis, Boehner has been ridiculed by political foes and pundits who say he was forced into this position by tea party conservatives in his conference.
"Boehner has never seemed more a SINO - that's Speaker in Name Only - than during this crisis," columnist Ronald Brownstein wrote in the National Journalmagazine last week.
Others have cracked that Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and tea party darling, is the real speaker, shaping the House GOP agenda via backdoor sessions with conservative lawmakers.
Boehner has "been riding the tiger for several weeks now," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "This is the biggest challenge he's had in his speakership."
But Cohen and others say it's unlikely Boehner will be ousted anytime soon, even if he extracts few concessions in the current fight. For one thing, conservatives who earlier criticized him as weak and too compromising are thrilled with his decision to push the fight this far.
"His stock has risen tremendously among Republicans," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a frequent Boehner critic. "What he's doing now is unifying us."
Massie agreed and said a revolt against Boehner today would have no better chance of succeeding than it did in January.
"I don't think his speakership is at risk," Massie said. "Those prognostications are over-exaggerated."
Cohen and others say Boehner's legacy remains in the balance, as he plots GOP strategy "day by day" and tries to forge a deal that will satisfy conservatives and moderates alike.
"Right now, he's the speaker who shut down the government and brought us to the brink of default," said Cohen. "He does not want to be remembered that way."
Cole said Boehner "came here to do big things" and this crisis represents an opening for him if the White House and Republicans can agree on measures to trim annual federal deficits.
"This is the opportunity to do a big thing and to make a really serious step in the right direction on the deficit," Cole said.
Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau