The same forces that brought John Boehner to power as speaker of the U.S. House are now the ones that weaken him.
For all the unity within the House Republican majority that he forged this year to thwart President Barack Obama’s agenda, Boehner was unable yesterday to amass the votes to pass his plan to cut the federal deficit and raise the debt ceiling.
The Ohio Republican failed to compel many of his party’s first-termers, elected with the support of a Tea Party-driven message of cutting government spending and resisting tax increases, to back him. He was forced to call off a planned vote on his measure after hours of direct appeals to objecting members in the speaker’s office.
Today, Boehner unveiled changes to the legislation that Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said will provide the needed votes for passage. Leaders added a provision that would condition the second of two debt-limit extensions on Congress sending to the states for ratification a balanced- budget amendment to the Constitution.
Yet with the Democratic-controlled Senate poised to kill the bill Boehner wants to pass, a debt-limit deal still may hinge on Boehner reaching a compromise with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. That would require the speaker to make a political pivot -- attracting enough Democratic House votes to pass such an accord to offset even greater numbers of Republican defectors.
“If Boehner was basically knocking heads to get the votes on his bill, he is really going to have to apply thumb screws to get the bill that comes back from the Senate to get it enacted,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Such a political dilemma could eventually prompt a challenge to Boehner’s speakership within his party, Baker said.
“If you were looking for a pretext to stage a coup, that would be a pretty good one,” he said. That “would happen later on,” not “in the midst of everything,” Baker added.
U.S. stocks pared losses. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell to 1,299.79, or 0.1 percent, at 2:07 p.m. in New York after tumbling as much as 1.4 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 36.17 points, or 0.3 percent, to 12,203.94 after slumping as much as 157 points.
Boehner is known for a collegial approach in dealing with his caucus -- especially compared to past leaders -- and that was in evidence as he pushed for passage of his measure.
Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, after a meeting with Boehner last night, recalled the days of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican nicknamed “the Hammer” for his heavy-handed lobbying efforts. “I was here with DeLay,” Flake said. By comparison, he told reporters, “Boehner has a soft touch.”
Flake, who had been a ‘no” vote, told reporters today that he would support the changed measure. “I think you will see quite a few get on board,” he said.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and another target of Boehner’s lobbying, told reporters he was “very pleasantly surprised that they’re not twisting and ripping arms off.”
After leaving a meeting with Boehner last night, Chaffetz reiterated his opposition to the speaker’s bill.
The measure Boehner pushed yesterday would provide an immediate $900 billion debt-ceiling increase while cutting spending by $915 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s scoring. It also would set the stage for another $1.6 trillion installment of borrowing authority if Congress enacted a law before year’s end to reduce deficits by $1.8 trillion.
The spending cuts are insufficient, argued some Republicans opposing the bill, including about 10 of the 87 freshman elected last November who gave the party control of the House and Boehner his speakership. Others demanded inclusion of the balanced budget amendment.
Though Democratic and Republicans senators have said such a provision stands no chance in their chamber, House Republican leaders went ahead and added the balanced-budget language.
Less than an hour before yesterday’s scheduled 6 p.m. House vote, leaders announced action was being postponed on the bill. The House partly occupied its time on the naming of post offices.
Meanwhile, Republicans who had either declared their opposition to the measure or made clear they were leaning against it were summoned to the speaker’s office.
One of them, Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, called his session with Boehner “very gracious, very nice and respectful.” He then said he still planned to vote no.
Today, Gohmert said he may change his mind. “I haven’t read the bill, but I like what I’m hearing,” he said after a Republican caucus this morning.
During the meeting, Boehner told his colleagues “he loves them,” though “some less than others, today. But he loves us all,” Representative Steve LaTourette, Ohio Republican, told reporters.
As the debt-limit dispute has played out, Boehner has been caught between his penchant for compromises on big issues that help his party with independent voters and the wishes of a band of anti-spending House Republicans who are spoiling for a showdown with Democrats on the debt limit.
If the plan is defeated, Boehner will be “shown to be weakened by the fact that he doesn’t have his troops behind him,” said LaTourette, a long-time Boehner ally.
A loss also would cast doubt on Boehner’s ability “to leverage legislation for the rest of this term,” which lasts through 2012, LaTourette said.
Today, LaTourette predicted the revised measure would pass, though the changes “cost us leverage” because they make it even more certain “the Senate will not pass it,” he said.
The measure’s certain demise in the Senate may be a political lesson for some of the House members who sought the change, though “I don’t know if any of” them “learned it,” LaTourette said.
Boehner also met with Senate Republicans today and received a standing ovation, according to those present. “We all respect the man for going what he’s gone through and accomplishing what he’s accomplished,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. “It’s a very difficult job and he’s done a terrific job.”
Hatch said Boehner’s message was that “they are going to get their bill over here and we’ll go from there.”
Some of the House Republicans who have stood firm against Boehner’s plan express admiration for his leadership.
“He’s got the most difficult job on the planet,” said Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, a Tea Party-backed freshman.
Allies of Boehner say his difficulties stem, in part, from the inexperience of members in the freshmen class, one of the largest ever elected to the House.
“We have some learning to do in our conference,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. New members are learning that “Democrats do run the Senate, they do have” the presidency, so “we can’t get everything we want.”
Boehner’s position won’t get any easier as he turns to his next big test -- crafting legislation that can pass both houses of Congress before the Aug. 2 deadline for a projected default.
For Boehner to be able to bargain effectively with Democrats, “he’s got to show in a straight-up fight that he can get” the votes to pass his legislation by persuading members “to do some things they don’t want to do,” Cole said.
“I have never had any doubts in John Boehner’s abilities,” Cole said. “The real question is does the conference have the ability?”
Today’s expected vote, he said, will be “a very big day for the speaker, it’s a bigger day for the conference.”
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