Why Democratic budget guru says his party has leverage for funding talks

The federal government runs out of money in 13 days. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, commented on the situation Friday.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Representative Chris Van Hollen, ranking member of the House Budget Committee, speaks at the Monitor Breakfast for reporters on Friday, September 18, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Sometime soon, Democrats and Republicans will have to come together and discuss how to fund the federal government, which runs out of money in 13 days. When they do, Democrats will have more leverage in the negotiations, says the Democrats’ budget guru in the House.

The reason? Republican division.

“It’s a function of the inability of the Republican leadership to bring with them their caucus,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, at a Monitor breakfast on Friday. “They have this very hard-right faction, and that means in order to get a lot of things done, they’re going to have to work with Democrats.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is facing a revolt from his right wing, which is willing to shut down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Two years ago, the same wing carried out a partial government shutdown over funding for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“It’s unfortunate that we seem to be on a rerun of a very bad movie,” said Representative Van Hollen, who is also running for the US Senate as he seeks the seat of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring in 2016.

Democrats want to work out a short-term, stopgap spending bill to give both sides time to negotiate a longer-term budget deal, similar to one worked out after the shutdown in 2013. That deal lifted spending caps on both military and nonmilitary domestic spending.

This week, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky indicated support for again lifting the caps. The question is whether right-wing Republicans will go along, particularly in the House – and whether Democrats will succeed in their desire to pay for increased spending by closing tax loopholes, something many Republicans oppose.

But first, Speaker Boehner is trying to put out the fire in his own caucus over Planned Parenthood, sparked by graphic videos showing officials from the women’s health-care provider discussing the sale of aborted fetal body parts for scientific research.

The funding revolt is running parallel to a simmering right-wing effort to toss Boehner from the speakership in a rare motion to “vacate the chair.” The closest example was 105 years ago, according to a blog by former House historian Ray Smock. It didn’t succeed.

If a disaffected Republican were to attempt that maneuver now – perhaps after the visit of Pope Francis to Washington next week – the speaker may well need Democratic votes to keep his job.

Van Hollen was not optimistic that Boehner would find such support.

“I cannot say that he can count on the support of Democrats,” he said at the breakfast. “I’d have to think long and hard about that if it ever got to that point. But my view is that the Republican caucus should find its leader, and we stand ready to work with whoever they decide should be their leader, as we are right now.”

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