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Boehner’s Latest Leadership Test Is Adopting a Budget

House Speaker John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

After struggling to corral his fractious Republican caucus for more than a year, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is nearing another test: passing a multitrillion-dollar budget for the federal government.

Republicans, after months of criticizing Senate Democrats’ decision to skip a budget, aim to adopt their own this month. Yet a group of self-described conservatives within Boehner’s ranks is pushing for a fresh round of cuts, even if it means upsetting a spending-reduction deal reached with Democrats in August.

“It’s just one more headache for Boehner,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “It sounds like much of what we’ve seen over the past year.”

Boehner of Ohio, who became speaker in January 2011, has grappled with intra-party fights over raising the federal debt limit and extending a payroll tax cut, as well as a still-unresolved dispute over legislation to finance highway maintenance. Though the federal government can operate without a budget, so long as Congress passes individual spending bills to fund the agencies, failure by the House to agree on a budget plan would cap a year of conflict with embarrassment.

“It’s imperative that they put one out given that they’ve been pointing fingers at the Senate,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush.

Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, and other self-described conservative members of the Republican Study Committee have proposed as much as $116 billion in cuts. An election-year budget fight with Democrats would underscore the difference between the parties, he said in an interview.

‘Positive Contrast’

“It’s important that we put forward a positive contrast,” Price said. “We’re in the minority party in Washington -- we don’t control the Senate and we don’t control the White House.”

More moderate Republicans say the proposed cuts are so large they are unrealistic, following the agreement last August with Democrats and President Barack Obama. All sides agreed to cap spending and impose $1 trillion in automatic cuts that will start in 2013 because a legislative supercommittee couldn’t agree on how to cut the deficit.

Breaking that agreement would risk making Republicans appear intransigent to voters, said Steve Bell, a former Republican budget aide.

“The speaker of the House, the minority leader of the Senate and the majority leader of the Senate made a deal before God and everybody else,” said Bell. “We are giving our adversaries weapons.”

$19 Billion

House Republican leaders are attempting to split the difference by pushing for an additional $19 billion in cuts, much less than conservatives demand and more than moderates want, probably leaving no one happy.

Democrats say that would renege on the August agreement and risk a shutdown because lawmakers must pass spending bills to keep the federal government operating when the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

“This wasn’t only a handshake, a pat on the back -- it was a law we passed,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said additional reductions wouldn’t break the agreement.

“The spending limit is only broken if exceeded,” he said. “Spending less not only satisfies the agreement struck last summer, but means we’re borrowing less from places like China.”

Tea Party Members

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, plans to unveil Republicans’ proposal this week. If Republicans insist on more cuts, it wouldn’t be the first time a bipartisan deal threatened to come apart at the hands of Tea Party conservatives in the House.

In December, an agreement between Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to extend a payroll tax cut was defeated by the House. House Republicans later backpedaled and accepted the plan amid widespread criticism.

Before that, a series of disputes over funding federal agencies and raising the debt limit brought the government to the brink of a shutdown four times. That’s one reason why Congress’s approval ratings plummeted to a record-low 10 percent, according to a Gallup poll last month.

Boehner’s challenge this time is that the budget debate comes in an election year, amid a primary season in which many Republicans are facing intra-party challenges. Representative Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican and member of the Republican Study Committee, lost her primary bid earlier this month.

‘Could Do Better’

“We’re seeing more primaries because when congressional approval is so low, there’s a lot of people who think: ‘I could do better,’” said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “There are a lot of members who are very concerned.”

Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said his colleagues are well aware that for all their differences over the budget, it would be a political disaster for them to fail to agree on a plan.

“We’ll come to a deal,” Huelskamp said. “It would be quite a failure of leadership in general if we didn’t have one, so we’re all committed to passing one.”

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