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Boehner’s Struggle Within Own Party Wounds House Leader

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 2013. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner will have trouble winning the next fight after the way he lost this one.

The Republican leader finally acceded to the demands of the White House and Democratic-led Senate in an agreement to end a partial U.S. government shutdown and avert a debt crisis. This makes it tougher for him in the next fiscal debate pushed into January and February by the accord. His ability to get anything through his own House will be tested in the year ahead.

“We just didn’t win,” Boehner, 63, told a Cincinnati radio station yesterday. “We fought the good fight.”

From the start of the standoff with President Barack Obama -- with a faction of the House’s Tea Party-backed Republicans seeking to defund, delay or declaw the president’s health-care law -- Boehner confronted a dilemma that could undermine his grip on the leadership.

Ultimately, Congress’s resolution of the 16-day shutdown and a threat to U.S. borrowing authority says more about Boehner’s capacity to run the House for the rest of this session, through 2014, than about his ability to hold the reins of the chamber beyond that.

The speaker will have to reunite Republicans divided in a fight over Obamacare and stake out winning strategies instead. That means his success depends on the party agreeing on some lessons learned in this struggle and on his ability to lead more and listen less to fractious forces among the Republicans.

‘Deliver Votes’

“He may have gained some points with the Tea Party caucus, but he did so at the cost of poor relations with everyone else,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It will be hard for him to cut deals because no one believes he can deliver votes anymore.”

Republicans say Boehner’s willingness to heed their concerns will leave his position as speaker unchallenged in the year ahead. He had to prove to his party that he pursued every alternative; in the end, he received a standing ovation from his caucus yesterday in a private meeting as Congress prepared to approve the final deal, according to Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican.

“There’s absolutely no talk of anything along those lines,” Representative Jim Jordan, a fellow Ohio Republican, said at a news conference on the question of overthrowing the speaker as a result of this fight. “No talk at all.”

Clean Resolution

To meet demands from the White House and Senate Democrats for a budget resolution free of restrictions on Obamacare meant that Boehner had to overrule his own party’s caucus to end the federal shutdown. The final House vote last night was 285-144.

With 232 Republicans and 200 Democrats in the House, Boehner had to count on the support of the minority party to pass the budget resolution needed to get the government running and raise the $16.7 trillion U.S. debt limit before the nation’s borrowing authority expired.

Going forward, Brookings’s West said, Boehner will have to rely on winning with “a combination of most Democratic and some Republican votes.” Because of that, West said, “there is little grounds for optimism regarding future action.”

Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant, says Boehner’s success depends on how much he profits from this conflict.

“Will Boehner take the opportunity to reassert his leadership and be less reactive to the caucus?” Murphy said yesterday. “Everyone talks about Boehner being a great listener. I think it’s time for him to do less listening.”

Fights Ahead

A majority of the Republican caucus will remain behind Boehner, Murphy said.

“The bigger question is where will the caucus go? Will there be a counterforce to the elements that convinced Boehner to try this disastrous course?” he said. “Do we try more of the same or do we understand we have made some errors that have damaged the Republican brand? I don’t think we know yet.”

The fiscal agreement has only pushed the fight over spending and the debt ceiling into January and February. And Obama already has signaled that he will press the House for action on Senate-approved legislation rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, an issue that divides the factions within the Republican caucus as deeply as the budget.

In a statement issued by his office, Boehner pledged that the fight over “the train wreck that is the president’s health-care law will continue.” Yet, he said, blocking the bipartisan deal emerging from the Senate ending the shutdown would only create a “risk of default” on U.S. debt.

‘Hijacked’ Party

Boehner, first elected to the House in 1990, represents the party establishment in Washington. Yet a crew of first- and second-term Republicans rallying around the cause of blocking the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act prevented the speaker from uniting his caucus.

“He’s the speaker, but somehow we have to draw this line,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who opposed the party’s tactic of making Obamacare a bargaining chip in fiscal talks, said on Bloomberg Television last week. “We can’t allow 30 or 40 people to hijack the Republican Party.”

Boehner was mindful of the lessons of an earlier House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who maintained that the party can’t advance legislation without the support of a majority of its own members. Throughout the shutdown, Boehner searched for a stance that could appease the rebels within his party, the Democratic-run Senate and White House alike.

‘Right Thing’

“He did the very best he could,” Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said on Bloomberg Television yesterday. “He gave his members a chance to do the right thing. They couldn’t quite get there.”

Representative Raul Labrador, a Tea Party-backed Idaho Republican, said he’s proud of Boehner and that “if anybody should be kicked out, it’s those members” who didn’t fight harder for concessions from the president. “I don’t think he should be ashamed of anything he has done.”

Boehner had managed to unify the caucus until the 15th day of the shutdown, when House Republicans couldn’t agree on a proposal he was floating, Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican, said in an interview. Ross added: “We didn’t have a very good hand in the first place.”

Moderate Republicans were warning Boehner that he was being misled by his concern for one faction’s interests.


“The circus created” in the budget and debt debate isn’t “reflective of mainstream Republicans,” Representative Michael Grimm, a New York Republican, said on the eve of the shutdown. “It projects an image of not being reasonable. The vast majority of Republicans are pretty level-headed and are here to govern.”

“This is a moment in history for our party to, once and for all, put everything on the table,” Grimm said then. “But at some point we’re going to come together and unify.” He said the “far-right faction” of the Republican Party “represents 15 percent of the country, but they’re trying to control the entire debate.”

The core of Republicans who pushed the House toward a showdown with the White House -- echoing the efforts of first-term Texas Republican Ted Cruz in the Senate -- is composed of 41 members, more than half from Southern states. On average, they won election with 65 percent of the vote and have mostly served in the chamber for fewer than five years.

Bucking Leadership

This group of lawmakers has exerted influence beyond its numbers in bucking the leadership and rejecting compromise with the Democratic president who won passage of his health-care program without a single House Republican vote. It takes 218 votes to pass anything in the House, meaning the anti-Obama caucus could deny any vote cast along party lines.

Senior Republican lawmakers warned that Cruz was leading the Senate into a dead end with his 21-hour monologue holding the chamber in paralysis before the shutdown. House members allied with Cruz, they said, were following an unwinnable path.

Republicans “left everything on the table” by pursuing a wrong-headed strategy, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters yesterday. “We took some bread crumbs and left the entire mill on the table.”

Some Republicans say the shutdown has damaged the public’s image of the party, making it less likely that it will be able to claim control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Public Perception

“This has been a very bad two weeks for the Republican brand,” Graham said. “It doesn’t really matter what’s in this package” ending the shutdown, he said, because Republicans “have no leverage” now. A “more reasonable approach” would have produced a better result, he said.

The divide within the party reaches beyond Washington. While 64 percent of the nation’s Republicans who agree with the Tea Party approved of how the party’s leaders were handling negotiations over the shutdown, the Pew Research Center reported last week, 61 percent of other Republicans didn’t.

A Pew poll also showed that the longer the shutdown went on, the more Americans blamed Republicans. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed Oct. 9-13 disapproved of the job Republican leaders in Congress were doing, while 51 percent disapproved of Obama’s performance.

Just 27 percent of those surveyed by the Gallup organization Oct. 3-6 voiced a favorable opinion of Boehner, 51 percent unfavorable. The share of those viewing the speaker unfavorably had grown by 10 percentage points since April.

“The great thing about politics is, every day you get another chance to try to do something smart,” Murphy said. “Maybe we can take away a lesson that this sort of ‘Braveheart’ strategy is damaging.”

Boehner, for his part, has pledged to fight another day.

“There’s no giving up on our team. None,” he said in his interview with radio WLW in Cincinnati. “And there’s no giving up in me.”

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