Photo by Medill DC.

Poor John Boehner. He thought he was going to be a hero. Now he just looks like a chump.

Boehner, you will recall, is the fearless leader — the speaker, actually — of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last month, he introduced a federal highway bill that, if passed, would have made him the king of the road, the darling of the suburbs, the object of every car-lover’s desire.

When he couldn’t find enough support to pass the bill (urban Republicans didn’t like his plan to cut funding for transit, budget hawks balked at the price tag), Boehner threatened the unimaginable: If the House didn’t sign on to his masterplan, he vowed, he would go with a compromise bill that passed in the Senate with (the horror!) broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.

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But the threats didn’t work — the House refused to go along with Boehner’s plan. Now, Boehner is locked in a high-stakes game of chicken with the Senate and House Democrats, who are trying to force him to settle for the compromise. If neither side gives, we’re headed for a shutdown of federal transportation programs when the current transportation bill expires this Saturday.


How did it come to this? When the House turned up its nose at Boehner’s highway proposal, it called the speaker’s bluff. “That talk of just going with the Senate’s compromise bill? I was kidding!” he said. “Bipartisanship is for sissies!”

OK, I made that up. But that’s the gist of it. Never mind that the transportation bill has already been extended, like, NINE TIMES already. Boehner would punt yet again, just long enough for him to fail one more time to rally support for his road-building bill.

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But this is where he started to look really foolish. On Monday, Boehner and the House leadership tried to force a three-month extension bill through the House. If they could pass that extension, the ball would be back in the Democrats’ court: Either the Democratic-led Senate passes the extension, or it risks looking like the culprit next week, when the government’s road building apparatus grinds to a halt.

But to get the extension through the House in a hurry, Boehner used a special vote that required a two-thirds majority — and Democrats wouldn’t touch it. Here’s Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), talking to Politico:

Our thinking is clear. We want the Senate bill to be brought up for an up-or-down vote. We feel very confident that bill would pass the House of Representatives.

Translation: “We don’t need your stinking extension. If you want to run the government into the ditch, be our guest. We’ll see you on election day.”

The extension went down in flames in Monday. A similar effort, this time for a two-month extension, failed Tuesday. This explains that mopy look on Boehner’s face — he’s still holding the hot potato. In the meantime, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says that even if the House passes an extension, he won’t bring it to a vote in the Senate — it’s dead in the water either way.

Boehner is running out of time and options — Congress is supposed to leave for a recess on Thursday — and the chants of “pass the Senate compromise” are growing ever louder. Senate Dems have created a count-down clock to tick away the minutes left before transpogeddon. Here’s Ray LaHood, the former Republican Congressman who is now the secretary of transportation, quoted in The Hill:

Speaker Boehner can’t get his troops together. What he needs to do is step up and show a little leadership. He could put moderate Republicans — he could get them to vote for this bill [the Senate compromise] — get a hundred Democrats who have agreed to vote it and pass the Senate bill. That would be good for America.

It might not be so good for Boehner’s standing among Tea Party Republicans, however, who see any compromise as a sign of weakness.

What next? The best Boehner can hope for is that the Democrats will blink, pass his extension, and give him another month or two to try to rally support for his suburban dream bill. Worst case for him, he and his fellow Republicans in the House will end up swallowing the Senate compromise.

The worst case for the rest of us, meanwhile, is that nobody blinks, and we continue down our current road to ruin, guided by a transportation policy that is taking us ever deeper into the weeds.

UPDATE: Boehner punts again! On Thursday, the House passed a three-month extension of the current transportation bill. Take that, Harry Reid! In all likelihood, Reid will bring the extension to the Senate, which will pass the extension rather than take the responsibility for a shutdown. The result: Three more months of partisan posturing, as the Senate and Dems push Boehner to accept a compromise, and Boehner grovels and begs for support of his bill, which we’ve always said was dead on arrival. Are we having fun yet?