When House Republicans were threatening to shut down the federal government back in 2013, many people asked me whether I thought Speaker John Boehner would cave in to his Tea Party extremists. “Absolutely,” I predicted, not because I thought Boehner wanted to shut the government (I’m pretty confident he thought it was a dumb idea), but because at some point, he had to demonstrate to the party’s insistent nihilist wing that no good would come of such an act.
That was an understatement. The Republican brand took a pounding as a result of that closure (not that the Party didn’t recoup in spectacular fashion in the 2014 election). And Boehner demonstrated to his troops that very few workable strategies emerge from legislative train wrecks, a lesson they learned only briefly, it appears.
Frankly, I was surprised Boehner did not let the Tea Partiers have their victory earlier in the 113th Congress. There was little doubt that, at some point, he would have to demonstrate that the shut down strategy would not produce the results the uber conservatives predicted, i.e., total capitulation by Senate Democrats and President Obama. So in some ways, it isn’t surprising that, with a new Senate majority and a new batch of freshmen Members, Boehner faced renewed demands to push Democrats and the Obama Administration to the wall on a key funding bill.
It is important to remember that with the exception of goofy bills that stand no chance of enactment, e.g., 56 variants on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Boehner has passed virtually nothing of significance without beseeching Democrats to help him prevent shutdowns or allowing middle class tax cuts to expire, or reneging on the national debt, or averting a number of other abysmally dumb, self-manufactured catastrophes that the hard Right has concocted. Rarely has Boehner been able to cough up more than 175 or 180 Republican votes for anything serious, requiring dependence on House Democrats to provide the supplemental 35-40 votes needed to pass must-pass bills. Just last week, the GOP leadership was forced to pull an education bill because they lacked enough Republican votes.
To his credit, Boehner has recognized on many occasions since becoming Speaker in 2011 that with the title and the impressive office comes an obligation to actually make the trains run on time, not simply allow them to plunge over the first available cliff. Because he was prepared to appeal for Democratic votes, however, Boehner is perceived as weak by a significant portion of his Caucus, as reflected by the 25 votes against his continuation as Speaker in January (a record since 1923) and his ineffectual efforts to cajole his Members into behaving like a governing majority.
Last week’s vote to fund the Department of Homeland Security for a week did not do much to alter the perception of a House Republican majority without the wherewithal to govern. As has regularly been the case, Boehner was far short of the number of Republicans he needed, although he did bump up past his prior numbers to 183 Republicans, still far short of the 208 (rather than a 218 majority) that he needed (because of absences). Those 183 votes represent just 77% of the Republicans casting a vote; to state it another way, a quarter of all House Republicans were prepared to close down DHS, or at least felt secure voting that way because once again, House Democrats made up the difference. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi sent out an urgent appeal to her Caucus urging support for the interim measure, and over 97% of all Democrats voting cast a “yes” vote.
So once again, the Tea Party was foiled by Boehner’s willingness to accept Democratic votes to do what he could not achieve with Republican votes alone. Even worse from the perspective of the far Right was the rumor that Boehner had pledged to Democrats that he would allow a vote this coming week on a clean bill that funds DHS through September, like the rest of the government, without a rider voiding Obama’s immigration Executive Order.
I cannot help but contrast this junior league leadership with the precision management of a contentious and divided Democratic Caucus by Speaker Nancy Pelosi back in her days as the most productive House leader in three-quarters of a century. Few commentators or observers realize even now how difficult it was for Pelosi to round up the Democratic votes needed to pass hugely consequential bills like TARP, the 2009 stimulus, or the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding her commanding majority. Like Republicans today, Pelosi had factions within her Caucus who used their leverage to shape these bills in return for their votes. But Pelosi was skilled enough to give just enough ground to secure the votes she needed, and she was well positioned in her Caucus to keep the liberals on board while she made needed concessions to more moderate and conservative Democrats, without whom she could neither pass the bills nor hold the House majority. Boehner, by contrast, is poorly positioned in his Conference with respect to persuading the recalcitrant right to act like a majority.
Nor can I imagine how the press and critics might have responded had Speaker Pelosi chosen to blow off serious questions about a government shutdown as did Speaker Boehner when asked how about Majority Leader McConnell’s clean DHS bill. Boehner responded with air smootches to the press corps, an incongruous and baffling un-Speaker-like response that left heads scratching throughout Washington. (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/boehner-offers-up-air-kisses-to-reporter-405105219937)
So the $64,000 question: what happens next? Well, I mean, don’t we all know? Boehner caves and passes the clean Senate DHS bill with Democrats providing the essential votes, as usual, to keep the government functioning. That is not a particularly risky prediction. The perplexing question is why Boehner allowed the confrontation to get completely out of control, so that his only options were bad ones:
- caving to Democrats: not good, angers the Tea Party troops, confirms the worst fears of the 25 anti-Boehner votes from January: he demonstrates a propensity to capitulate to Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, just like he did as Education Committee Chairman when he worked with Ted Kennedy and George Miller to pass No Child Left Behind, or when he worked with Pelosi to pass TARP.
- holding out for a DHS bill that negates the immigration Executive Order, a futile act which results in a shut-down of the federal anti-terrorism department, thereby assuring that every security scare or incident for the next generation will be laid at the feet of the caviling conservatives who “shut down the Department of Homeland Security” back in 2015.
If Boehner has any interest in truly governing (an open question, in my book, since inaction constitutes success for many of his members), he is going to have to stand up to the nihilists. Doing so will likely mean negotiating with Democrats who hold the key votes for passing substantive legislation, and who can block (by a filibuster or by sustaining a veto) any Republican initiative they dislike, at least until 2017. How the GOP leaders respond will provide clear evidence whether they intend to move beyond partisanship and maneuvering in order to maintain their gavels. Challenging his nay-sayer caucus may cost Boehner his gavel (as acting decisively cost Pelosi’s hers, and many Democrats their seats), but the responsible exercise of power usually entails risk. Who knows? You could even inspire the country that Congress can function.