Real trouble ahead.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A New Danger for John Boehner

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 could be in real trouble soon.

Boehner has been very good at his job. Yet from the day he became speaker of the House, the conditions of Tea Party conservatism and divided government have constantly put him in danger -- even as they also saved him. 

Because of divided government, every must-pass bill (such as appropriations to keep the government running) requires Boehner and Barack Obama to reach an agreement. Yet Tea Party conservatism sees compromise -- especially with Obama -- as a violation of principle. This means Boehner has been repeatedly cast as a weak sellout, drawing the wrath of House radicals and fueling rumors of a coup to replace him.

Parodoxically, the very thing causing this trouble for him has also protected him. After all, the real problem wasn't that Boehner negotiated badly. It was that he was negotiating at all. And any Republican interested in the speaker's chair had to realize that whoever deposed Boehner would immediately wind up in the same exact situation. So no decent candidate was going to want to undermine him and take the job.

And here we go again. The government's fiscal year will end on Sept. 30, and without something passed by Congress and signed by the president, the government shuts down. The House has begun passing appropriations bills, but they've filled them with policy riders (and, in some cases, spending levels) that Obama won't sign and that Democrats in the Senate will filibuster.

So a deal will have to be struck, sooner or later.

The most likely outcome, as budget maven Stan Collender muses, is a continuing resolution that pushes the fight ahead three months to the end of December. But if conservatives revolt, which is likely, then the continuing resolution will have to pass the House with mostly Democratic votes, setting up Boehner as a villain one more time. And, whether in September or December or after weeks of a government shutdown, the speaker and the president are eventually going to wind up on the same page, with House radicals opposing the deal.

What is different this time is that the 2016 elections are approaching. If Republicans win unified control of the White House and Congress, then the speaker's job becomes a much more appealing position. Sure, congressional leaders always have to cut deals and will always disappoint some members of their caucus, but whatever the speaker does under unified control will ultimately be validated by a Republican president who will be hugely popular among Republican rank-and-file voters.

The closer we get to November 2016, then, the more vulnerable Boehner gets -- at least as long as potential rivals are somewhat optimistic about winning the presidency. And he can't do anything about that.

  1. In the meantime, look for conservatives to decide that appropriations bills shouldn't be subject to filibusters. I agree -- but only if the measures include no policy riders. Spending bills free of other legislation should only need a simple majority in the Senate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at