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Politics

Government Shutdown Puts Boehner in a Tough Spot

The speaker’s stark choice: Please the tea party or lose his job.

House Speaker John Boehner holds the key to how long the federal government is shuttered.

As soon as the Ohio Republican backs away from the demands of the GOP’s tea party wing and offers a “clean” resolution to fund government programs for the short term, enough Republicans will join House Democrats to pass it and end the standoff.

It’s a tough choice for Boehner, and it could cost him the speakership if enough tea partyers withdraw their support for him. So far Boehner shows no signs of giving ground, despite growing public calls from some members of his caucus and the business community to give up trying to eliminate spending for President Obama’s health care law in the funding resolution.

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But he’ll have to back down eventually, lest he and his party get blamed for taking their ball and sending others — in this case, nonessential federal workers — home.

It doesn’t matter whether people think Obamacare is a good idea or a bad idea. It’s the law of the land; it was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court; and more than 40 other attempts to block funding or delay implementation passed the Republican-controlled House, only to die in the Democratic-led Senate. It’s difficult to get your way when you control one chamber of Congress and the other party holds the other chamber and the White House.

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Sometimes you have to compromise. And sometimes you have to surrender to reality. The longer it takes Boehner to stand up to the tea partyers, the angrier voters will get. At this point, polls show that most voters oppose the idea of using the federal budget as a pawn in the health care game. Even many of those who dislike the insurance mandate don’t like how House Republicans are acting.

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The ultimate irony here is that at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, when the government closed, enrollment in Obamacare opened.

There’s a right time to debate whether to make changes in the health law, and a right time to argue about the size, reach and power of the federal government. It’s probably best to do that without the added pressure of a government shutdown that will serve as a drag on the economy if it lasts more than a day or two.

But even if this impasse ends quickly, a fight over legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling is just weeks away. Republicans are making noise about going after Obamacare in that legislation, too, so a default by Uncle Sam isn’t out of the question.

Neither impasse will hurt House Republicans running for another term in 2014. Only a relative handful of districts are competitive, and Boehner’s party has a comfortable advantage.

They will undercut GOP chances of capturing the Senate, though, and may make it more difficult for Republicans to win back the White House in 2016.

There is, to be sure, a need for the president and lawmakers from both parties to get serious about addressing the federal debt. That will require a comprehensive approach, including tax reform and an overhaul of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as well as spending cuts.

That can’t be done piecemeal. And it can’t be done as part of a frantic bid to get the government back to work.

It will take two parties working together, not standing alone.

Right now, that’s hard to imagine.

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