* Speaker must decide whether to allow a House vote
* Boehner's likely choice: default or alienate Tea Party
* Would he allow a bill with mostly Democratic support?
By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON, Oct 14 If the Democrat-led U.S.
Senate manages to strike a deal to reopen the American
government and avert a catastrophic default on its debt by
Thursday's deadline, the agreement - and the U.S. economy - is
likely to hinge on one man: John Boehner.
Boehner, the Republican speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives, could be about to confront the most critical
decision of his three decades in politics.
He could allow the House to pass a Senate deal that likely
would get more support from Democrats than Republicans - a move
that almost certainly would lead some conservatives to push for
Boehner's removal as speaker - or he could side with rebellious
Tea Party Republicans by preventing a vote and allowing America
"John Boehner is caught between a rock and a hard place,"
said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist.
It's a familiar place for Boehner, who often has struggled
to manage several dozen conservative Tea Party Republicans who
have shown little interest in compromising with the Senate or
Democratic President Barack Obama.
Boehner's current plight is largely a result of his desire
to placate the vocal Tea Party caucus and adhere to the "Hastert
Rule," a tactic named after Republican Dennis Hastert, who was
House speaker from 1999 to 2007.
It is not a formal rule in the House, but stems from
Hastert's general policy of not allowing a bill to be voted on
by the full House unless most members of the House's majority
supported it. Hastert wanted to avoid a repeat of complaints
about his predecessor, Republican Newt Gingrich, whose
management style was seen by some Republicans as too
Hastert, now an adviser to a Washington law firm, told The
Washington Post this month that the term "Hastert Rule" is a
"misnomer," but said the important thing in pushing legislation
as a Republican speaker is "to move your party's philosophy,"
rather than advance Democrats' agenda.
Hastert's successor as speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, made
a point of rejecting the Hastert Rule and allowed some bills to
pass with more support from Republicans than Democrats,
including one that funded the Iraq war.
Boehner, however, has seemed to embrace the Hastert Rule.
His following of it is a big reason why he has refused to
allow Senate bills that would reopen the U.S. government and
raise the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing limit to be
considered by the House.
If he had allowed votes on such measures they likely would
have passed with most support coming from Democrats, members in
both parties say, and the current crisis could have been
But that would have required Boehner to essentially nullify
conservative House Republicans' strategy of holding up funding
for government operations and delaying an increase in the
government's legal debt ceiling to try to force Obama and the
Democrats to dismantle or delay the president's signature
Absent action by Congress, much of the U.S. government has
been shut down for two weeks and the U.S. Treasury is warning
that the government will start to run out of money to pay its
bills on Thursday, unless Congress extends its borrowing
'STRONG REPUBLICAN SUPPORT'
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said that like every
speaker, Boehner's goal "is to pass bills with strong Republican
As for a deal with the Senate, Steel said: "We'll have a
look at it and make a decision."
Steel noted that Boehner had allowed major legislation to
pass the House without majority Republican support during the
past year, notably as part of the budget deal that helped the
government avoid a "fiscal cliff" in January.
That move drew outrage from Tea Party Republicans, who
threatened to oust Boehner in last January's vote for speaker -
a threat that never really materialized.
But Tea Party supporters who see the current stalemate as
their best chance to undermine Obamacare are making it clear
that Boehner will pay a price for allowing such a vote again.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots
advocacy group, said that if Boehner allows any deal through the
House that does not dismantle Obamacare, "he may need to be
concerned over his own party calling for new leadership. The Tea
Party has been in this because of Obamacare, and he needs to
BEGINNING OF THE END
For Boehner, the political calculus behind such a decision
In the House, there now are 232 Republicans and 200
Democrats, with three vacant seats. A bill needs 217 votes to
Conservative Republican members who were endorsed by Tea
Party groups account for about one-third of the Republican
caucus. In all, 160 Republicans in the House get high marks from
the ultra-conservative Club For Growth.
The support for conservatives in the House makes it unlikely
that any Senate deal to end the shutdown or raise the debt
ceiling would be supported by a majority of House Republicans
because it would not include changes to "Obamacare" or spending
cuts that Republicans want, said David Gergen, who has advised
Republican and Democratic presidents.
Gergen said that Boehner "will have to decide whether to
forget the Hastert Rule, and allow Democrats to vote" on any
deal that emerges from the Senate.
"The question for Boehner is whether to fall on his sword
and prevent a default, or take the country into default because
of the Tea Party," Gergen said. "At the end of the day ... I
think he'll fall on his sword, even it means the end of his
speakership. If he does that, I do think his days as Speaker
will be numbered."
Steve Bell, a Republican Party veteran and chief of staff on
the Senate Budget Committee during Republican Ronald Reagan's
presidency, said Monday: "I have known John Boehner for 20
years. He is not going to let this country default."
Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic congressman from Maryland who
has negotiated with Boehner on budget matters since 2011, said:
"The health of the American economy depends on his putting
country over his own job. This is the time Speaker Boehner has
to cut his umbilical cord with the Tea Party."