What John Boehner can do before he leaves Congress

Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he’ll try to work ahead as much as he can before he resigns at the end of October. But it might be hard to get through much of his to-do list.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio acknowledges a reporter during a new conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.

Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner says he wants to “clean the barn up a little bit” so he doesn’t leave his successor with too many unresolved issues.

The potential chore list is long and consequential, including funding the government, raising the federal debt ceiling, and paying for the nation’s transportation.

Making things more challenging for him: The right flank that has fought the leader for nearly five years is now emboldened by his resignation. And House Republicans are preoccupied with the election of new leaders.

On the other hand, Speaker Boehner is still loved and respected by many in his caucus, and he retains substantial power. He may himself feel emboldened, given that he's leaving. 

Democrats, meanwhile, stand willing to help on a range of issues – such as preventing a government shutdown Oct. 1. Indeed, their votes are expected to help Boehner clear a short-term extension of the budget this week that would keep federal funds flowing through Dec. 11.

Boehner has indicated that he’ll try to work ahead as much as he can before he resigns at the end of October. But how much this lame duck can truly get done is an open question – and he himself is not tipping his hand on specifics.

“I don’t rule anything out, but it’s going to be tough for Boehner to get a lot done in those 30 days,” says William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Several deadlines loom. At the end of October, funding for America’s highways, bridges, and other transportation needs runs out.

In November or early December, the United States is expected to reach its borrowing limit – the debt ceiling. To borrow more and avoid a debt default, the president needs congressional approval.

Then there is a longer-term budget that will have to be negotiated before Dec. 11, as well as a slew of tax breaks that expire by the end of the year.

In addition, a good number of Republicans and Democrats would like to see reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which expired July 1, attached to the transportation bill. That agency helps US companies export goods.

Mr. Hoagland questions whether Boehner will cross GOP majority leader Kevin McCarthy on the Ex-Im Bank. While many establishment Republicans, as well as Democrats, support the bank as a jobs creator, Representative McCarthy opposes it as corporate welfare. So do tea partyers.

McCarthy, from California, is running for speaker, and Boehner has endorsed him.

Hoagland’s best guess is that Boehner will get the transportation bill through the House. However, it differs substantially from the Senate version.

As for the debt ceiling and a longer-term budget deal, those issues have brought Washington to its knees before. They require negotiating on many levels and pulling many levers. That takes time and would be very hard to get through both houses before Boehner leaves.

A budget deal is particularly tricky because President Obama wants to lift budget caps – known as sequestration – on both military and nonmilitary spending. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has said that Republicans would "inevitably" negotiate over the caps, but the issue is highly contentious among Republicans.

“Unless Boehner can pull a rabbit out of the hat ... I am very uncomfortable with what we might be looking at on Dec. 11,” says Hoagland, a budget expert. A new speaker will not be as experienced as Boehner, and hard-liners who are flush from victory over Boehner will fight even harder against busting the budget caps.

Still, Hoagland and others don’t want to underestimate Boehner, an experienced legislator of 25 years. Initial budget talks between him, Mr. Obama, and Senator McConnell began last week, the senator told reporters Tuesday.

If politicians are willing to compromise and put the country first, a long-term budget deal "can be done" by the time Boehner leaves, says Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who successfully negotiated a two-year budget with Republicans in 2013.

Boehner may be willing to take a few "bullets" for the larger good, explains a former aide for a Republican congressional leader. “He’s going to take on a series of land mines that legislators of lesser ability probably wouldn’t touch," says the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

As speaker, Boehner has the ability to bring bills to the floor, and that’s a tremendous power. “For a lot of that stuff, he won’t need only Republican votes,” the former aide says.

The source adds that Boehner would most likely focus on spending bills, seeking to preserve what he has accomplished: the first real spending cuts since the end of World War II; permanent tax cuts for nearly all Americans; and the first major entitlement reform (the so-called Medicare doc fix) in 20 years. 

As for his right flank, “he’ll give everyone a chance; he’ll listen,” the former aide says. “He won’t throw them overboard, but if they want to jump overboard themselves, that’s their choice.”

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