Challenges lie ahead for President Obama, who was officially sworn in for his second term Sunday, but more so for Speaker John Boehner, who faces rebellious freshmen congressmen as the House deals with the debt ceiling, automatic spending cuts and government funding over the next few months.
If Congress fails to raise the federal government's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling by the end of next month, the nation will default. By March, action will be needed to avert deep spending cuts to military and domestic programs that were delayed by two months in the fiscal cliff deal. And the nation will face another threat of a government shutdown at the end of March.
As he deals with these challenges, Boehner faces a thinned majority given that Democrats won eight seats last November, and worse, 29 new Republicans can be expected to flout the leadership as they seek fiscal austerity.
Many House Republicans believe that bondholders can be paid off and Social Security checks can be filled even if the nation's borrowing power runs out. For example, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) calls the default a "fake red herring," according to The Washington Post. All the president needs to do is "prioritize spending," he says.
When Boehner sought re-election earlier this month, four of the new Republicans refused to back him. Of a conference of 234 Republicans, 220 supported Boehner during the tension-filled vote on the House floor on Jan. 3. If just five more Republicans had refused to back him, there would have been a second ballot.
Conservatives within and outside Congress were unhappy with Boehner for his handling of the final "fiscal cliff" legislation.
However, some of the newcomers believe Boehner's re-election despite their votes against him will lead the speaker to be tough with Obama. "Boehner has been too nice of a guy, frankly. The president has not been coming to the table. … He's the one who's out to lunch and John Boehner has been too nice," Politico quoted Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) as saying. Broun feels the speaker will be "very tough" on the president in the coming months.
Besides, Boehner's decision to have a vote this week on extending the debt limit for three months, with a requirement that both chambers pass a budget in that time or go without pay, will likely placate House conservatives.
"Before there is any long-term debt limit increase, a budget should be passed that cuts spending," Boehner said in his closing remarks at the Republican Party's three-day retreat in Williamsburg, Va., which ended Friday. The speaker warned that if a budget resolution is not passed by the two chambers, members of Congress will be prevented from being paid. "We are going to pursue strategies that will obligate the Senate to finally join the House in confronting the government's spending problem," he said. "The principle is simple: no budget, no pay."
At the retreat, Boehner sought help from former GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to brief members about the forthcoming battles.
Ryan later told reporters that his party would try its best to ensure that the House goes in for strong deficit-reduction measures. However, the House Budget Committee chairman added, "We also have to recognize the realities of divided government that we have."