As government shutdown nears, a top Democrat goads Boehner over leadership

Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Monday said that House Speaker John Boehner has abdicated leadership on key budget issues – such as averting a government shutdown – to a tea party standard-bearer in the Senate: Ted Cruz.

Michael Bonfigli/TCSM
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

With a threatened government shutdown just hours away, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee on Monday accused Speaker John Boehner of abdicating leadership on key budget issues to freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas.

“Senator Cruz is running the show now,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, the budget panel’s ranking Democrat. “It is time for the speaker to make a decision. Either he should step aside for Senator Cruz or he should exert some leadership.”

Cruz has been urging tea-party-affiliated lawmakers in the House to do two things: First, force Speaker Boehner and GOP leaders to abandon their plan to offer a simple, stop-gap bill (without GOP add-ons) that will keep government funded, and second, mount a larger fight over raising the government’s debt limit, which would need to be done by mid-October if default on the national debt is to be avoided. Van Hollen spoke (see video) at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

The speaker’s approach is “feeding the beast,” Van Hollen argued. “What has happened is at every juncture, when he has had to either exert leadership or kowtow to the far right, he has ended up throwing a bone to the far right and it has really just fed the beast…. Senator Cruz is dictating policy in the House of Representatives today.”

Van Hollen argued that the speaker should allow the House to vote on a “clean” bill – one without other major provisions – to keep the government running.  “If we had a vote today on the clean continuing resolution that is coming out of the Senate [later Monday] to keep the government open, it would pass,” Van Hollen said.

On the House floor Monday morning, Boehner defended a House-passed measure that would avoid a shutdown but that ties the new government funding to a one-year delay in further implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. “The law is not ready for prime time,” the speaker said.  He called on the Senate to pass the House measure that delays Obamacare implementation.

Of course, the bill Van Hollen is urging would pass on the strength of Democratic votes, and if Boehner went that route he would no doubt anger tea-party supporters in his own caucus – and perhaps endanger his hold on the speaker’s office. “He should … take some risks for the good of the country at this point in time instead of reinforcing the worst instincts of the most extreme parts of his caucus,” Van Hollen said. 

Others, too, have criticized Boehner for not exerting more control over the most conservative members of his caucus. The cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek carries the headline “John Boehner Doesn’t Run Congress.” It describes former Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, as “The Shadow Speaker.”

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