Boehner Hobbled by Losses While He Keeps Job No One Wants

House Speaker John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, listens to a question during a news conference in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

- John Boehner lost.

He lost control of his U.S. House caucus. He lost a chance to limit the impact of tax increases to only the most wealthy. And he lost face.

So far, he hasn’t lost his title as U.S. House speaker --in part because “no one wants that job,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. “Right now it’s a hard job to have.”

Boehner’s admission yesterday that he pulled his own deficit-reduction proposal from consideration because he didn’t have enough votes for it to pass is casting doubt on his leadership skills. To successfully manage an agreement now, Boehner, 63, will likely have to rely more on Democrats.

“It weakens the entire Republican Party, the Republican majority,” said Representative Steven LaTourette, a nine-term Ohio Republican who is retiring after this session. “If you’re not a governing majority, you’re not going to be a majority very long.”

The news also wasn’t greeted well on Wall Street. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index yesterday retreated 0.9 percent to 1,430.15 in New York. The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 120.88 points, or 0.9 percent, to 13,190.84. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note yield dropped three basis points, or 0.03 percentage point, to 1.76 percent at 5 p.m. New York time, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader data.

Sinking Polls

The damage to the party was evident in the results of an ABC-Washington Post poll released yesterday, in which 53 percent of Americans said the Republican Party needs policies that are more focused on middle-income and lower-income Americans, while 38 percent said the party needs better leaders to sell its policies. The telephone poll of 1,002 adults, conducted Dec. 13-16, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Of course, the fiscal talks aren’t over and Boehner will have another opportunity to achieve his aims and, potentially, share a legacy with Obama of passing a significant deficit-reduction plan that also curbs the rising costs of such entitlement programs as Medicare and Social Security.

In a White House appearance yesterday, Obama said he remains committed to reaching an agreement with the speaker, an achievement that eluded them last summer during discussions over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Brendan Buck, Boehner’s spokesman, said his boss “will return to Washington following the holiday ready to find a solution that can pass both houses of Congress.”

Infuriated Members

Until Dec. 17, Obama and Boehner had been edging closer to a deal that included $1 trillion each in tax increases and spending cuts. Boehner had put tax-rate increases on the table - - for income above $1 million a year -- which infuriated some lawmakers backed by the anti-tax Tea Party. That was the proposal he pulled from the House floor on Dec. 20 rather than see it defeated by his own caucus members.

Congress now won’t vote on the end-of-year budget issues until after the Christmas holiday, giving lawmakers less than a week to reach agreement to avert the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January, the so-called fiscal cliff.

“The odds go up that we go over the fiscal cliff,” said Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, a Republican.

Negotiating Partner

At least for now, Boehner, an Ohio Republican who’s served for 11 terms, is reducing his role in the negotiations, which he had been holding directly with Obama. Yesterday, he called on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to craft legislation.

“You have to have a negotiating partner who can deliver,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Boehner’s failure after days of promoting his proposal -- and publicly asserting he had the votes to pass it -- diminishes his leverage in negotiations with Obama, Baker said.

Former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, a Republican who left Congress in 1995 after a serving 38 years, said Boehner’s inability to win support of “hardliners in the caucus” to pass the tax measure “undermines the speaker” yet it won’t hurt his ability to keep his post.

“There is nobody to take his place,” Michel, 89, said in an interview. “The Tea Party people couldn’t do doodly-do on their own,” he said. “They couldn’t come up with a candidate that would be elected by the whole Republican caucus.”

Ousted Speakers

In recent times, speakers have been forced to leave office only when the majority of their party determines they have “become a political liability,” said Ronald M. Peters Jr., an Oklahoma University political scientist and author of “The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective.”

That was the case in 1989 when an ethics inquiry forced Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, of Texas, to leave office. The House ethics panel was investigating allegations that he had evaded rules on outside income earned by lawmakers through bulk sales of his book “Reflections of a Public Man.”

Likewise, a 1997 ethics inquiry into Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was forced to pay a $300,000 penalty by the House ethics committee after an investigation into a college course he taught in Georgia that involved his campaign donors, contributed to his decision to resign shortly after the 1998 election, when his party lost five House seats.

“I don’t see anything in the present lay of the land that a majority of Republicans think that Boehner is a liability,” Peters said. “Most people are saying the liability is the Tea Party Republicans, not Boehner.”

Boehner Re-election

To be re-elected as speaker, Boehner needs only to receive a majority of all the lawmakers voting, according to House rules. That vote is scheduled to take place on Jan. 3 when the Congress elected in November convenes.

Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who’s a senior member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he sees no “credible” threat to Boehner’s speakership.

“He’s trying to deliver the most conservative product that gets the job done,” Brady said in an interview yesterday. “And that’s not always easy.”

Hastert, who had a five-vote margin over Democrats during the first two years of his speakership, said scraping together votes was the biggest part of the job.

“I spent 90 percent of my time trying to bring people around the table on both sides of the issue,” said Hastert, a former Illinois congressman who was speaker from 1999 to 2007.

With that thin majority, Hastert said that every day he’d “look over at the hole dug next to me and see my casket in there if I didn’t get the votes.”

Boll Weevils

The last speaker to navigate a political minefield similar to Boehner’s -- leading with a small, influential bloc of rebellious lawmakers -- may have been Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who had to contend with the so-called Boll Weevils. From 1981 to 1983, O’Neill had only a nominal majority provided by the group, mostly Southern Democrats, who favored smaller government and lower taxes, and often voted against O’Neill’s plans.

The group gave Republican President Ronald Reagan “pretty much what he wanted,” Rutgers’s Baker said. “They gave him a tax cut, they gave him a budget cut, they gave him a major increase in defense spending.”

It wasn’t until after the 1982 election, when Republicans lost 26 seats, “that O’Neill was basically able to recapture his leadership,” Baker said.

Unlike O’Neill, who tolerated the Boll Weevils out of concern they’d leave the Democratic Party, Baker said, the anti-tax Tea Party members have “nowhere to go” besides the Republican Party.

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