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By Shawn Zeller and Tamar Hallerman, CQ Staff

Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn’t.

Story Photo

STRESS TEST: The speaker leaves a GOP leadership conference on Sept. 9.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker John A. Boehner must make a big decision in the coming days. The Ohio Republican could shut down the government over funding of Planned Parenthood, appease conservatives and hang on to his post. Or he could, once again, rely on House Democrats to enact legislation to keep the government running and leave his party’s right flank so mutinous that he risks being toppled.

Sept. 30 at midnight is the deadline and the clock is ticking, setting the scene for high congressional drama. The Yom Kippur holiday and a highly anticipated papal visit that will draw intense international attention only complicate the calendar.

Since the tea party swept the Republican Party to a new House majority in 2010, conservatives have warred with the GOP establishment in Washington, Boehner chief among them. The speaker has scored the most victories, and kept his job.

But there’s reason to believe that this fight might be the one that undoes him, or at a minimum inflicts lasting damage. Boehner’s loud and insistent critics say this is the year that the tea party takes over the House. They are outraged by the release of sting videos from the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress that purport to show that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of aborted fetal tissue, and say this is the time to stand fast against funding an organization they have long opposed.

“The speakership’s on the line here. If he can’t stand for something … He claims to be 100 percent pro-life; this is the only chance,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican who is among those most critical of Boehner.

The outlook is grim. Even if he does choose to shut down the government and then caves a day or a week or a month later, the tea party wing of his party will be no happier with his speakership.

If he relies on Democrats to enact a continuing resolution, perhaps the renegades in his caucus will finally have the ammunition they need to unseat him. And then he will still face the same predicament when that CR runs out — likely in November or December — and Congress turns to the even thornier questions of how to reconcile differences over fiscal 2016 spending levels, contentious policy riders and the looming need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

The GOP conference is abuzz with other ideas and options and diversions as the days between now and the end of the 2015 fiscal year wane. But in the end, these are the choices, and they leave Boehner more vulnerable than he’s ever been.

Escape Routes

Maybe Boehner survives for now by pursuing the powerful tool of budget reconciliation. Or he could bring the government to the brink of shutdown, then push through a last-minute “clean” CR with Democratic help. He’s been down this road before, and an escape for Boehner is clearly a strong possibility.

The most recent example was this past March, when House conservatives sought to strip funding for President Barack Obama’s plan to grant deportation relief to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. That time, Boehner went along, then gave in, turning to Democrats for their votes. He survived, but it’s not clear how many more times he can go down that path.

Just months later, things have changed. An anti-Washington mood grips the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump, viewed initially as a joke candidate by establishment Republicans, has not only maintained his lead in the GOP presidential primary polls, but expanded it. His closest competitor, the surgeon Ben Carson, is another candidate bucking Washington insiders.

The preferred candidates of the powers-that-be, meanwhile, remain far behind. “In the presidential election today, the establishment is polling at 25 percent,” says Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who supports a challenge to Boehner.

Meanwhile, Trump has fed the perception among conservatives that if they were just more true to their beliefs and fought harder, that they’d win, regardless of the polarization in the capital. And Trump says he would shut down the government over Planned Parenthood.

Clearly, the Republican primary electorate is in a feisty mood, perhaps as feisty as in 2010, and they gave their representatives an earful at August town hall meetings. “There’s always the phantom alternative, the hardcore path that we didn’t take” for these conservatives, says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. “They are checking all their resentments into Trump Tower.”

That’s left Boehner, in the view of Adam Brandon, the president of the conservative group FreedomWorks, with the “sword of Damocles over his head.”

In July, Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who clashed with the speaker over Meadows’ vote against a rule bringing trade legislation to the floor, offered a motion to vacate the chair, threatening a vote on Boehner’s speakership. It was a display of disloyalty that’s exceedingly rare in Washington, but instead of condemning it, many conservative representatives and interest groups have said they agree.

During his speakership, Boehner has nine times violated the unwritten rule named for his predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, providing that a speaker not bring to the floor a bill on which the majority of his party will vote no, thereby relying on the minority to pass it.

The five most significant violations came on fiscal matters. That started in January 2013, when Boehner agreed to a deal to extend the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush for most taxpayers, but to raise them for high-income earners, averting the so-called fiscal cliff.

One hundred and fifty-one Republicans defected. Among the 85 to vote yes, though, was Boehner, who only votes in rare circumstances, when he feels a point needs to be made.

Counting Votes

In the more recent instances, the number of Republican defections has varied. There were the 144 who voted against the funding deal that ended the last government shutdown, in October 2013, when Republicans sought unsuccessfully to cut funding for the implementation of the president’s health care law. And there were the 199 who voted in February 2014 against raising the government’s borrowing authority.

In both instances, Boehner stood by his decision, voting yes along with his most loyal Republican allies and nearly all Democrats.

Now it’s clear that conservatives’ patience is wearing thin. They control both the House and the Senate, videos in which Planned Parenthood executives allegedly discussed selling the body parts of aborted fetuses are on YouTube, and they still can’t get the better of Obama.

Republican anti-abortion advocates say they won’t settle for a show vote this time around. “Our constituents don’t buy that and they shouldn’t,” says Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, who is so viscerally opposed to Planned Parenthood that he once posted to his Facebook page a satirical article from the Onion about the group’s opening of an “$8 billion abortionplex.”

Two weeks ago, the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 conservatives that came together this year in part to push back against Boehner, announced that they would not vote for any spending bill that funds Planned Parenthood. Before the August recess, South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney recruited Republicans to sign a letter pledging to oppose any spending bill that funds Planned Parenthood, bringing the number of representatives who say they will oppose a so-called clean CR to more than 50, and there are likely more who would join them.

Mulvaney says the pressure from constituents to fight harder has gotten to the point where he and others want Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to change the Senate rules and allow a simple majority to pass legislation. That would at least allow congressional Republicans to take the fight to Obama.

“The filibuster has got to change,” he says, or there will be upheaval in the House. McConnell “has no idea the amount of pressure that the members are under over here to change our leadership.”

Then again, even the Freedom Caucus isn’t united about a shutdown. California’s Tom McClintock announced his resignation from the caucus on Sept. 16 over the shutdown push. “This tactic promises only to shield Senate Democrats from their responsibility for a government shutdown and to alienate the public from the pro-life cause at precisely the time when undercover videos of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices are turning public opinion in our favor,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Conservative interest groups are contributing to the pressure for a shutdown. But they aren’t playing a decisive role because they’re more divided on the issue than the House GOP conference.

Tea party allies such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and anti-abortion groups are lobbying conservatives to stand their ground. Last week, FreedomWorks’ Brandon, for instance, sent a message to his grassroots activists to lean hard on their members. “Boehner’s already starting to waver,” he wrote. “We can’t afford another blundered Boehner budget!”

On Sept. 9, a coalition of socially conservative groups wrote to Boehner to ask him to publicly commit to never passing a budget that funds Planned Parenthood: “The pro-life community who helped secure the historic majority the Republican party enjoys in Congress today are respectfully pleading with you to make a public declaration,” they wrote.

Don’t assume Boehner is unmoved. Boehner, a Catholic, is adamantly anti-abortion. “Planned Parenthood seems to be the one that’s always frustrated the speaker the most because he is such a pro-life member of Congress,” says Rory Cooper, a GOP strategist and former aide to Virginia Republican Eric Cantor when Cantor was House majority leader. “He’s been fighting for that cause so long.”

Anti-abortion groups, however, aren’t all on the same page, further complicating Boehner’s decision. On Sept. 16, the president of the National Right to Life Committee suggested a shutdown may not help the organization’s efforts. (The group has not announced an official position on a potential funding lapse.)

The divide has left Boehner stuck in the middle. “The speaker is the most pro-life speaker in history and no one wants to stop these barbaric practices more than he does. We are working with our members to stop these horrific abuses and advance the pro-life cause,” says Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.

Still, another important GOP constituency, business groups, is not happy about a shutdown. Before Boehner agreed to close down the government in 2013 over the health care law, a huge coalition of business trade associations led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the idea. The business community feels the same way in 2015.

And even some interest groups that support more limited government are worried about this fight. Americans for Prosperity, the group funded by the billionaire Kansas industrialists David and Charles Koch, has been notably silent. “AFP did not support the government shutdown attempts last time,” says Levi Russell, a spokesman for the group. “It didn’t do us any favors.”

It’s clear why even conservatives concerned about federal spending would want to sit this one out: A losing battle over Planned Parenthood funding could weaken Republicans later this year when they must bargain with Obama over a more winnable cause, preserving the sequestration spending caps that Congress and the president agreed to in 2011. Obama and congressional Democrats want to raise them; many Republicans say they will not.

Vanessa Williamson, the co-author of a book on the tea party, notes that Americans for Prosperity played a big role in fomenting that movement in 2010. “So even if the grassroots would be OK with another round of shutdowns, their voices are not being amplified like they used to be,” she says.

Calming the Right

Appropriators and Boehner have been trying behind the scenes to defuse conservative anger over Planned Parenthood and decouple the issue from government funding. They don’t want to see another shutdown blamed on them, particularly ahead of a presidential election year.

In listening sessions with rank-and-file Republicans over the last two weeks, Boehner’s team has emphasized the Planned Parenthood investigations launched by several House committees. The speaker’s allies have urged lawmakers in favor of a funding showdown to consider how difficult it will be to overcome a filibuster by Senate Democrats. And they’ve presented polling data that indicates the issue is a loser for the GOP.

“If you’re pro-life, the last thing you want to do is have the focus change to the government shutdown because the pro-life community insisted on this kind of stuff, rather than the activities of Planned Parenthood,” says Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior GOP appropriator and Boehner ally.

On Sept. 18, the House passed a stand-alone bill to defund Planned Parenthood, but for many conservatives, it was a hollow gesture, since the bill will die in the Senate and never reach Obama. “For me, it’s not enough,” says Fleming.

Republican lawmakers have also discussed using fast-track reconciliation legislation to bypass a Senate filibuster and slash funding for the women’s health group. Budget reconciliation legislation, which is used to make changes in mandatory spending programs or revenue, can be considered in the Senate without the usual 60-vote requirement for other measures. A simple majority in both chambers could get it to Obama.

Some GOP lawmakers say they are intrigued by the option. But the conservative Heritage Action quickly swatted down the idea, arguing that it faces several procedural barriers — the Senate parliamentarian could rule the gambit out of bounds — and would still require Republican lawmakers to cast a vote for a separate stopgap spending bill that sends money to Planned Parenthood. Obama would also veto a reconciliation bill, and Republicans don’t have the votes to override him.

Boehner has not ruled out a short-term stopgap with Planned Parenthood defunding language. But appropriators warn that a clean CR is what’s needed to clear the way for work to wrap up on the fiscal 2016 spending bills. They also point to a recent Congressional Research Service report that concluded that Planned Parenthood would likely continue to receive federal funds in the short term under a shutdown anyway.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are trying to help by painting a clear picture of what’s possible in their chamber. McConnell continues to state confidently that there will be no government shutdown this fall, saying the GOP does not have enough votes to override a presidential veto on Planned Parenthood and defunding efforts are better left to a Republican president in 2017.

“We’re not going to engage in exercises in futility. We’ve already voted one time in the Senate to try and defund Planned Parenthood. We know the president wouldn’t sign such a bill. So it will not succeed,” McConnell said Sept. 16.

McConnell has stopped short of saying he will put a clean CR on the Senate floor, but has acknowledged that it is the only way to gain the support of the chamber’s Democrats, who continue to flay the Republicans for their indecision.

“This is the hallmark of this Republican Congress: create an unnecessary, manufactured crisis, then march to the edge of another cliff and then wait for the next cliff to show up,” Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, said on Sept. 16. Obama has also used his bully pulpit, recently urging business leaders to lobby Congress to avoid a shutdown.

Boehner’s allies, meanwhile, continue to circle around the embattled speaker. Simpson says the majority of the GOP conference is more supportive of Boehner than ever before. “This vocal minority will still have their say, and that’s OK, but I’ll tell you they’re isolating themselves more and more,” he says.

Moderate Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent puts it more bluntly: “They’re empowering Nancy Pelosi and the minority.”

Polls and Pols

In Republican leaders’ view, a shutdown makes no sense. Conventional wisdom has it that the public was unhappy about the 2013 shutdown and the shutdowns of the 1990s and, each time, blamed Republicans. An ABC News-Washington Post poll following the 2013 shutdown, in which the government shuttered for 16 days, showed that 81 percent of the public disapproved of the shutdown and 53 percent blamed Republicans for it.

So it’s hard to understand the perspective of House conservatives willing to go down that road again. But there is a case for it. If the shutdown was a mistake, they ask, how could Republicans have picked up House seats in the 2014 election and taken the Senate majority?

And if the key to victory in elections is motivating your base to come out, a deeper dive into the ABC-Washington Post poll shows that it wasn’t necessarily a loser among Republican voters. Though they didn’t like their party’s handling of the budget negotiations that year, most of them thought their representatives should have fought harder. Fifty-seven percent of Republican respondents blamed Obama for the shutdown and 55 percent said Republicans shouldn’t have backed down in order to end it.

A poll released Sept. 16 by CQ’s parent company, The Economist Group, found that a plurality of respondents would blame congressional Republicans for a Planned Parenthood shutdown, but more than a quarter said Obama would be to blame. And 43 percent of the 2,000 people who took the poll said they were Democrats, compared to 33 percent who said they were Republicans.

That might embolden conservatives, along with the finding that nearly half of the respondents have watched some or all of the Planned Parenthood videos. With Trump riding high in the polls, they may be thinking that the 2016 election, like 2014 and 2010, will be more about turning out their base than winning over independents.

And even if moderates are annoyed, the shutdown will be ancient history by the time voters go to the polls 14 months from now.

“The question is: Where is the political energy?” asks Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “It is flowing away from McConnell and Boehner.”

Boehner will either take his caucus over the edge, into a shutdown, or defy conservatives and avert one. Former House leadership aides say he will decide based on what his caucus tells him.

“He’s said this before: ‘A leader without any followers is just a guy out taking a walk.’ If the conference’s will is to shut the government down, I assume there’s a chance that could happen,” says a Republican lobbyist.

In 2013, that may have helped Boehner keep his job for another term. It’s not clear if it will be enough this time.

— Ryan McCrimmon, Melissa Attias, Melanie Zanona, Paul M. Krawzak and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.