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Boehner Outfoxes His Critics. Again.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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John Boehner is very, very good at his job.

You'd never know that from the news coverage of the House defeat of his proposed three-week funding extension for the Department of Homeland Security. After an unusual combination of conservative Republicans and almost all House Democrats rebuffed the speaker's bill, the Senate jumped in to pass a one-week interim measure, which the House then approved, avoiding a partial government shutdown.

The House will reportedly complete the process today by passing a “clean” bill to fund the department for a full year without the riders that would have restricted Barack Obama's actions on immigration. 

Pundits and reporters have portrayed the chain of events as a disaster for the speaker, and are wondering again if his job is in jeopardy. So why do I think Boehner’s “defeat” was actually a brilliant maneuver?

Remember the basic story: Republican foes of immigration reform are suffering a defeat. They attached the riders to Homeland Security funding to block Obama’s immigration actions, but that bill couldn’t get through a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and would have been vetoed anyway.

Boehner's strategy was to propose a three-week extension he knew the House would reject, passing the buck to the Senate to do something to head off the partial shutdown.

Thus he could tell conservatives this week that he drove a harder bargain than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did, and it's possible some conservatives in and out of Congress will buy it.

On one hand, the speaker gave the radicals and those who voted with them a moment of triumph when they spiked the bill. On the other, it was a good reminder for most mainstream House conservatives, who oppose Obama's immigration actions but don't want a shutdown, that the alternative to Boehner is chaos.

Most House Republicans have accepted that this isn't a winnable fight, and they’ll be happy to have it over with, even if most of them vote against the legislative vehicle Boehner uses to end it. 

We have a mistaken view of what congressional leaders can do. They may be able to steer their members a bit in one direction or another, but if they push hard – or if they defy what the caucus wants – they won’t last long.  Boehner can't do anything about the two dozen or so House radicals, nor can he do much about the 30 or 40 members who want to vote with them. But he can do one important thing: He can supply them with chances to cast largely symbolic votes.

Yes, when the House rebuffs him it can look embarrassing to the handful of people who watch C-SPAN or follow the minutia of congressional procedure. But Boehner is wise to accept these 24-hour fiascos, even if they spread reports of coups against him. The griping is just for show. Most House Republicans probably know they have a very sharp speaker.

  1. The Senate then passed a one-week extension that the House accepted. Last night, the Senate formally rejected holding a House-Senate conference on the full-year funding bill and sent their “clean” version back to the House. In other words, Boehner proposed a three-week extension (which wouldn’t pass) so that a conference committee (which Democrats would block) would have time to work out a compromise (which neither side wants). 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net