US House speaker John Boehner to 'take single bullet' on spending, debt
Strategists say Speaker won't risk a stopgap vote to end shutdown to avoid a revolt on debt ceiling
With his troops anxious for a way forward, John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, began a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans on Friday morning with a recitation of letters from local schoolchildren on how they deal with stress.
A shower helps, one child counselled. So does a nap.
But on the matter causing all that congressional stress, Boehner offered no clue as to how he expected Congress to get out of the dead end it has found itself in, with the government shut for a fourth day and no clear path to raise the federal debt limit to avoid the nation's first default.
"We are locked in an epic battle," he told his rank and file, those who attended said, urging them to "hang tough".
The overarching problem for the man at the centre of the budget fight, say allies and opponents, is that he and his leadership team have no real idea how to resolve the fiscal showdown.
They are only trying to survive another day, Republican strategists say, hoping to maintain unity as long as possible so that when the Republican position collapses, they can capitulate on two issues at once - financing the government and raising the debt ceiling - and head off any internal party backlash. Republican lawmakers say Boehner has assured them privately that he will not permit a default.
His backers say he does not have to fear a coup stripping him of his speakership.
If the Speaker were to move on a stopgap spending bill now, without conservative policy priorities attached, it would likely pass with Republican and Democratic votes. But the ensuing Republican uproar - on and off Capitol Hill - would ensure that there would be no Republican votes to raise the debt ceiling.
"It's common-sense strategy," one Republican strategist said. "If you're going to take a bullet, you want to take just one."
On paper, Boehner is the perfect man for the moment, a veteran congressional institutionalist with a history of working with Democrats on big problems and someone bruised by the memory of the last government shutdown and the harm it did to his party.
That John Boehner has faded, carried away by the "tea party" current that swept him to power and is now pulling him from the moorings of his past.
Aides to Boehner, however, say he has a clear vision of where he wants to end up in the current crisis, but is unwilling to lay out his goals until he has a Democratic partner with whom to negotiate.
Democrats are openly disrespecting his leadership and disregarding his demands. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate's Democratic majority, suggested again on Friday that Boehner was putting his speakership over his country.
Even Republican allies say whatever strategy exists seems to be dictated not by the Speaker, but by Senator Ted Cruz, the hardline Republican who helped start the movement to de-fund "Obamacare", President Barack Obama's initiative to make health care affordable.
Asked what the House was doing, congressman Devin Nunes, a Boehner loyalist, said: "You really have to call Cruz, I'm not even joking about that. He's the one that set up the strategy, he's the one that got us into this mess, and so we've got to know what the next move is."
Boehner on Friday showed a flash of temper when he referred to suggestions from the White House that Democrats had the advantage.
"This isn't some damn game," he said, his voice rising. "The American people don't want their government shut down and neither do I."