John Boehner today is poised to win a second term as U.S. House speaker, even as there are signs his authority within the Republican caucus is shrinking and he has fewer levers to use to impose order.
The Ohio congressman is facing criticism from Republican activists and elected leaders who accuse him of caving on a major tenet of the party’s ideology: a 20-year pledge to oppose tax increases.
Representative-elect Steve Stockman said he plans to oppose Boehner’s bid for a second term as speaker even though there’s no other viable candidate.
“Each time our nation’s fiscal policies have been up for debate, Congressman Boehner has told Americans they’ll get spending cuts ‘next time,’” Stockman, of Texas, said in a statement. “There cannot be another ‘next time’ for fiscal responsibility, or Congressman Boehner.”
The frustration is bubbling up as Washington prepares for a series of confrontations between congressional Republicans and the White House over spending, starting with a debate about raising the country’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling next month.
Another showdown may emerge in early March, when Congress must confront the $110 billion in automatic spending cuts, half from defense, that were put off in the tax deal that passed the House and the Senate on Jan. 1. On March 27, a short-term measure that funds government agencies will lapse, creating another potential fight.
Congress and the White House could agree to settle all those issues in one grand bargain, a goal that’s been elusive in prior talks. Boehner, 63, and President Barack Obama, 51, have twice seen similar deficit-reduction negotiations collapse because of House Republican resistance to tax increases.
Representative Jeff Landry, a Louisiana Republican who lost his seat in November, said on CNN’s “Early Start” yesterday that “the president was able to get the speaker to undo everything he had promised he would do for the American people.”
Similar sentiments were expressed among the party’s activists. “He may have permanently lost favor with conservatives,” said Brent Bozell, who advocates for lower federal spending. “He certainly has with me.”
Others called for ousting Boehner, along with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who negotiated the final deal with Vice President Joe Biden.
“Republicans who saw Mitch McConnell and John Boehner destroy the last plank of the Republican Party are going to need to look elsewhere for a savior for their party,” Erick Erickson wrote on his website, Redstate.org, yesterday.
Boehner and his backers argued that Republicans will be in a stronger position in the debt ceiling negotiations now that the fight over taxes is behind them. The budget agreement passed by Congress and signed yesterday by Obama averted income tax increases for most U.S. workers, while rates rose for individuals earning more than $400,000 and married couples making more than $450,000.
“Now the focus turns to spending,” Boehner said after the House passed the compromise tax deal on Jan. 1. “The American people re-elected a Republican majority in the House, and we will use it in 2013 to hold the president accountable.”
Boehner’s assurances failed to persuade the majority of his caucus. Sixty-four percent of House Republicans, 151 in total, voted against the measures. In an unusual leadership split, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, of California, opposed the bill.
The divisions were notable, given that the Senate vote adopting the measure was almost unanimous -- just five Republicans opposed it.
Still, with no serious challenger, Boehner is set to easily win a second term as speaker.
His defenders say Boehner entered the negotiations with Obama in a weakened position, after a presidential election during which his party failed to effectively articulate the Republican argument against raising taxes on the wealthy.
“When you don’t argue the point at all, the other side wins,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist and adviser to Boehner. “The president went into this debate coming out of this campaign with the upper hand because no one had made an argument.”
The speaker is also hampered by the fact that the tools used by his predecessors to impose discipline are diminished or unavailable to him. Many of the caucus’s new members were recruited by anti-tax groups rather than the national party committees, which erodes institutional loyalty. Changes in campaign finance rules mean that fundraising and other help provided by party leaders to candidates don’t hold as much sway.
Still, Boehner’s decision to move the tax bill forward with Democratic support -- rather than trying to twist the arms of his own caucus members -- may pay off for him in the long run, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist.
“They had the luxury of voting against it because they knew it would pass,” said Feehery.
That was especially true for Republicans who fear a primary challenge from within more than a general election fight with a Democratic candidate.
“I thank all you who will vote for it,” Representative Darrell Issa of California said on the House floor before the vote. “I cannot bring myself to vote for it.”
While the politics pleased some lawmakers, they left activists demoralized and aiming their fire at Boehner.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to sit well with conservatives,” said Michael Franc, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former aide to House Republican leaders. “They’re lashing out, and they’re going to lash out for a while.”
Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got in on the Boehner bashing, railing against the House for failing to pass a relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims. The failure to act to aid those still suffering in New York and New Jersey “is why the American people hate Congress,” he said.