DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: March, 2015

Reflections on the Senator from Searchlight

Changes in congressional party leadership do not happen very frequently, and when they do, it is a time for reflecting on that leader and his or her impact on the institution.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Searchlight, NV, announced Friday that he would not seek another term in the Senate in 2016. Perhaps it was his fall from the Majority Leader’s office last November, or the fall on his exercise machine on New Year’s Day: both left him battered and doubtless contributed to the decision of this once-fearsome boxer that the time had come to hang up the gloves.

Having known and worked with Reid in a variety of capacities over a couple of decades, especially when I served as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, I have long felt that the quiet and diminutive Leader often did not receive his due from press and political observers alike. Some of the underestimation of the Nevadan is due not simply to his low key style (which is not altogether unwelcome in the rancorous halls of the Capitol, especially in recent years), but to a misunderstanding of the power that the Senate leader possesses, a handicap of which Reid was all too aware.

Reid and Pelosi would meet frequently – at least weekly – when the both led majorities in their respective chambers. The discussions were focused on legislative strategy for moving key Obama legislation. Reid, who spent three terms in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1986, sometimes expressed feigned awe at the ability of Speaker Pelosi under House rules to schedule a bill for floor action, control the terms of debate, and ensure its passage at a date and time certain.

“There are times,” Reid once remarked, “when I wish I were the Speaker of the House.” (I’m not sure I believed him, but I understood his musing given the procedural need of the Senate majority to assuage the minority.) “The Speaker doesn’t have to worry about the minority. They run over everybody.” Of course, that observation is a gross simplification of the many challenges Pelosi faced in passing bills like the 2009 stimulus and health care reform, but the ability of any Speaker to use the rules to set the parameters and timing of debate is certainly one advantage of running the House.

Reid’s lament was not original; it has been said that the Senate Majority Leader enjoys the most exaggerated reputation for power of any job in Washington since he must regularly cajole 60 senators to even agree to consider debating a bill that requires only 50 votes to pass. Former Leader Mike Mansfield once remarked, “I’m not the leader really. My Democratic colleagues are the leaders. My job is just keeping the party together, smoothing over the differences, keeping tempers [under control], and trying to achieve the possible despite the differences inherent in the party.”

The late Howard Baker sounded similarly resigned to his limited powers when Republicans ran the Senate during the Reagan Administration. “The leader of the Senate relies on two prerogatives, neither of which is constitutionally or statutorily guaranteed,” Baker noted, “the right of prior recognition … and the right to schedule the Senate’s business. These, together with the reliability of his commitment and whatever power of personal persuasion one brings to the job, are all the tools a Senate leader has.”

Reid has understood the inherent limitations in his powers, and has proven a wily and formidable Leader in the majority and the minority. He may not have Lyndon Johnson’s height and personality to employ “The Treatment” – a combination of towering over and onto a recalcitrant colleague, occasionally jabbing him in the chest – but Reid knew his members and his institution, and with strategic patience, he usually found the votes he needed.

Reid’s resourcefulness was operating on full throttle during the latter, and crucial, phases of the passage of health care in 2010. A Senate-passed bill, which had received the necessary 60 votes, contained several provisions that House Democrats found highly objectionable; that bill could not pass the House. Nor could Reid reproduce the 60+ votes margin to pass the companion House bill. Reid and Pelosi constructed a two-step process that would have the House pass the flawed Senate bill, which would have to be signed into law for the strategy to work, after which the Senate would agree to pass a new House bill making numerous corrections to the just-enacted Senate product. The procedural abracadabra of this maneuver rested on writing that second bill as a budget reconciliation measure which only required a simple majority to pass the Senate (not 60), and which could not be filibustered like a regular piece of legislation.

There was one fly in the ointment: if the Senate failed to pass the House’s reconciliation cleanup bill, the original Senate bill would remain the law of the land, flaws and all. House Members were therefore obligated to pass the Senate bill knowing of that possibility, with only the assurance of the Senate that it would, in fact, pass that second, reconciliation measure to correct the Senate flaws (which some in the Senate, naturally, did not view as “flaws.”) Of course, everyone understood the health care two-step, and saboteurs would doubtless be out in force to ensure that the cleanup bill was derailed. How to secure the approval of House Members for a strategy that rested 100% on the trustworthiness of the sly Senate? How to guarantee that House Members were not left holding the bag, and an empty one at that?

This was the dilemma on our agenda when Speaker Pelosi and I journeyed to Sen. Reid’s ornate office for our regular weekly strategy meeting in March, 2010. The details of that discussion will have to await another time and venue, but it was at that meeting that Sen. Reid proposed securing the signatures of 51 Senate Democrats pledging the take up and pass the reconciliation measure if the House would first pass the Senate health bill and send it to the President’s desk. Sen. Reid asked me what I thought of that plan and, as I recall, I let out a short laugh, having spent over 30 years among House Democrats who believed “Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.” I believe I told Sen. Reid that his plan would never be acceptable to a skeptical Democratic Caucus.

And yet only a day or so later, Sen. Reid came before House Democrats to lay out his plan and to assure them he had the 51 signatures he needed to pass that second reconciliation bill. The names, however, would have to remain confidential. “Here it comes,” I thought to myself, waiting for the certain raucous dismissal by the House Members.

Silence. Not one question. No catcalls, laughter, shoes flung at the podium. Reid simply presented his pledge, said “thank you,” and left; the Caucus endorsed the strategy, and I was left wondering how I had so totally misjudged the response of the Caucus that I thought I knew pretty well.

Now it is true, House Democrats were prepared to swallow a lot they didn’t like – no public option, no single payer, abortion restrictions, etc. – because achieving health care reform trumped nearly any objection. Still, I was mystified that Reid had pulled off this legislative legerdemain without a ripple of skepticism or dissent. That told me all I needed to know about his wiliness.

That was the second time Harry Reid flabbergasted me. Nearly two decades earlier, I was staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee and was locked in a nasty battle to raise the highly subsidized rates charged Western ranchers who fed their cattle on federal lands. Like most Western interests who benefitted from the resources of the federal government they denigrated, the ranchers were ballistic about the Clinton Administration proposal to raise fees to market rates, and a good number of them resided in Nevada.

Over in the Senate, I was involved in a staff meeting when the door opened and in walked Sen. Reid, whom I had known during his years in the House. Displaying the confrontational directness for which he is known, Reid accused me – he always referred to me as “Dr. Lawrence” — of promoting proposals that would severely impact his constituents in Nevada, an accusation that was completely inaccurate. I was both embarrassed to be upbraided by a senator in front of my staff colleagues, and incensed by the inaccuracy of the accusations. I fired back, telling Reid he was completely off-base with a directness that was, admittedly, inappropriate in speaking to a United States Senator, certainly during a public meeting. Reid withdrew and the meeting continued; shortly thereafter, Reid re-entered the room and I steeled myself for round two; instead, Reid said that he had checked with his staff, and that his original remonstrance was inaccurate. He apologized and left the room, and we went on and finalized a compromise agreement.

That incident stayed with me for years, both because I could not believe the inapposite tone of my response to his allegations, and especially because Reid had returned after speaking with his advisors and, to an entire room of staff people, admitted he had been wrong. Senators apologizing to staff, let alone to House staff, is – let us say – uncommon.

So it was with some trepidation that I awaited my first meeting with Reid as Pelosi’s chief of staff in 2005. I had had no contact with Reid in the ensuing decade and a half, during which time he had risen to the role of Senate Democratic Leader. I was looking forward to a good working collaboration, but lingering in the back of my head was our last conversation over the grazing fee dispute. As Reid walked into Pelosi’s office and shook hands with her, she motioned over to me and said, “Harry, I want you to meet…” Reid interrupted her to say, “Well, hello Dr. Lawrence, we haven’t seen each other since the grazing fee discussion.” My heart sunk as we shook hands, but it was the last time Reid ever mentioned the dispute. Instead, we had a fruitful and cordial working relationship and when we had a spare moment over the next 5 or 6 years, we would occasionally talk about the role of the Wobblies in the Nevada mining wars of the 1890s.

Postscript: Reid’s departure likely means as contest for his leadership position between New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. (Reid has endorsed Schumer.) The two aspirants have spent decades together both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives and as lodgers in a D Street SE house owned by mutual friend, recently retired Rep. George Miller.

Advertisements

A Strategic Step Towards Reconciliation

A stumbling start is never a great way to begin a race, political or otherwise. In both cases, it is urgent to regain your footing and your stability. After kerfuffles about foundation fundraising and secret emails, Hillary has some work to do to deflect attention from her mis-steps and recast herself and her campaign, as something new, original, and forward-looking. Otherwise, she risks being caught up in a storm of suffocating partisanship, second-guessing, and press animosity that could doom her candidacy before it even begins.

We don’t know whether these incidents are likely to have any impact on the uncommitted voters who will determine who will be the next President of the United States. What we do know is that the candidate who is able to think and act outside the narrow partisan cocoon may well have the best chance at winning that crucial , up-for-grabs, 10% of the electorate.

How does a candidate simultaneously sustain the engagement of the party’s ideological base (which provides most of the money, votes and energy) while also persuading disenchanted voters that his or her candidacy represents an alternative to the highly polarized state of American politics?

Forty years ago, Democratic sage Clark Clifford proposed a “government of national unity” to “transform … years of bitterness, divisiveness, and deterioration to years of healing, unity, and progress.”   Clinton could recast herself and shake things up by reaching across the partisan chasm to independents and reasonable Republicans who want to resume rational discourse. Such an initiative, early in the campaign season, would demonstrate a welcome desire to offer voters something truly unique: a commitment to include diverse but constructive views in the governance process. It also would help round off some of Clinton’s own partisan edges, and isolate the powerful Tea Party Republicans who stand only for extremism and inaction.

Now, how would you go about doing that? Please note: this is not a prediction, it is a suggestion – one option to avoid plunging into the dark, swirling waters of another presidential campaign only to emerge with a battered victor and an exhausted, demoralized and still polarized electorate.

Secretary Clinton would already make history by being the first woman nominated (or elected) President (not to mention as the first former Secretary of State to be elected since James Buchanan in 1856). Why not double down and go one historic step further by selecting former Congressman and former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of Illinois as her running mate, offering voters a ticket of national reconciliation and pragmatic governance?

Did I mention that Ray is a Republican? Let me disclose all the damage up front. LaHood had a conservative voting record as a six-term congressman from Illinois’ 18th district. La Hood prides himself on sharing a district with historical figures known for their embrace of comity and collaboration while still upholding their GOP credentials including Abraham Lincoln, Everett Dirksen (who played a crucial role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and LaHood’s former employer, GOP Minority Leader Bob Michel.

His selection certainly would provoke groans from key segments of the Democratic base who reject his votes on wedge issues like choice and guns. Absence of purity is the inevitable trade-off in coalition politics. But LaHood was no reflexive right-winger. He voted to preserve affirmative action in college admissions, he voted against taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools, he voted “yes” on allowing reimportation of prescription drugs to reduce costs to consumers, and he voted to raise the minimum wage in 2007 – all positions strongly favored by liberals.

He was one of just three GOP candidates in 1994 who refused to sign onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Most important, he was a Member who enjoyed the respect and trust of Democrats and Republicans alike, who rarely engaged in harsh partisan rhetoric, and who genuinely believes that the most important talent in governing is an ability to find common ground. And he had a working relationship with Mrs. Clinton during the time they both served in President Obama’s first term Cabinet.

Admittedly, LaHood’s selection would do little to placate those for whom Clinton herself is a stretch, either on the Right or among those discontented liberal purists who still want to punish her for her Iraq vote or her closeness to Wall Street.  And yes, she could demonstrate an openness to ideological diversity by selecting a moderate to conservative Democrat rather than by going all out and selecting a moderate Republican. But the left would be just as angry about a conservative Democrat on the ticket, and for the Right, well, any plausible moderate Democrat is bound to have a litany of liberal votes that earns as much approbation from conservatives as Clinton does herself.  Analysts have pointed out that the most conservative Democrat in Congress these days is still more liberal than the most moderate Republican.

Cross-party ticket balancing might appeal to crucial moderate and independent voters disenchanted with both parties and ambivalent about voting for anybody, let alone a polarizing figure like Clinton. LaHood fits the bill: fair-minded, non-ideological, and credible to people on both sides of the aisle. He was chosen to preside over Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the House because he exuded unfailing fairness. (Talk about Hillary sending a message of reconciliation!)

LaHood has a long history of trying to dampen down the partisan passions that have helped stagnate American politics. In the 1990’s, LaHood and former Rep. David Skaggs (D-CO) initiated several well-attended bipartisan retreats for fellow House Members designed to restore the dissipating comity that once allowed Democrats and Republicans to fraternize in the House gym, on the floor, or during international travel. The effort fizzled for a variety of reasons, but no one doubted LaHood’s sincerity, or the desirability of turning down the partisan heat.

Every progressive interest group or liberal activist can compose a list of LaHood votes with which they disagreed, and would point out the contradictory positions held by Clinton and LaHood. (I expect to hear from lots of them real soon.) But disagreements between running mates are not unusual either. Remember that Barack Obama selected Joe Biden who won his earliest legislative victory in the mid-1970s leading the Senate charge against school busing to achieve racial balance.

The point is this: if we are going to move beyond the partisan stand-off, we need to rebuild public confidence that government, and the people who run it, can function collaboratively. Many foreign parliamentary governments today are created by such cross-party alliances that our two party system effectively precludes. But the voters who will decide the next election pretty clearly want candidates who do not lock themselves into ideological rigidity that demonizes the opponent and complicates the chances for cooperation and collaboration after the voting is over. Whoever wins (with 50% of the vote, if he or she is lucky) will have no mandate to govern unless faith in government itself is first re-established.

Is it chancy to nominate a bipartisan ticket? Sure. Are these times that cry out for something unprecedented? Maybe. Great challenges demand significant risk, and voters want to see that the person who aspires to the presidency is prepared make tough decisions. Here’s Clinton’s chance.

Clinton-LaHood 2016: unity over purity, progress over posturing, a ticket of national reconciliation. Worth thinking about?

Resigned to Hillary?

Neither the squirreled away State Department emails, nor the Wall Street (and God knows who else) contributions to the Clinton Foundation, nor the acceptance of donations from troglodytic sheikdoms while promoting empowerment of women are likely to have enormous impact individually on either the determination of Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency, or on the electorate.

Rather than individual, the impact is cumulative, both on Clinton and on her party. The alleged mini-scandals add to the incessant drumbeat of charges culled from 35+ years of public life that fuel a pit-of-your-stomach uneasiness with putting all the Democrats’ eggs in this one basket.   Under the very best of circumstances (i.e., a successful campaign in 2016 and re-election in 2020) we are looking at nine and a half more years of implacable, often irrational combat, charge and countercharge, and innuendo certain to batter a politics-weary nation into greater and deeper despair.  We know it’s coming, and that’s if things go really well.

The issue, for many Democrats, may not so much be Hillary’s inevitability as the unavailability of a credible alternative.  At a recent dinner party chock full of fellow latter day yellow dog Democrats (as at many gatherings over the past year or so), there wasn’t a single person doubting they would vote for Hillary, but also not one who didn’t admit to some ambivalence. Lack of enthusiasm can translate into lack of turnout, and of course, that can be lethal in a campaign. Oy yi yi, the baggage, the enmity, the dismaying “beat[ing] on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Is there no way to both win the election and turn a corner in the nation’s political history in 2016? Sadly, the answer may well be “no.”  The press, interest groups, the partisan electorate all live to devour candidates and officeholders, the less confrontational, the more satisfying the destruction. Need proof? If ever a candidate descended on a golden beam of light, an altruistic alternative to the tempestuous tumult of rancorous politics, willing to embrace all who came to the negotiating table, of any party or ideology, that was Barack Obama, whose post-partisan eagerness to accommodate was met with unrelenting and unparalleled viciousness.   So why should we expect something different following the 2016 election, whether it is President Clinton II or President Whoever. The next commander in chief will rapidly become the target of pay-back and business-as-usual from cable TV, talk radio, social media and the 48% of the electorate who voted against her, or him and considers the winner the Anti-Christ.

It is the very inevitability of that poisoned atmosphere that, ironically, may be the most compelling argument for a Clinton candidacy.  Does anyone think the Republican/Tea Party machine of personal destruction that has eviscerated Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and any other Democrat willing to take them on, would suddenly regain its manners and sit quietly with hand folded for any other Democrat?  Not on your life.  Let’s not pretend the Republicans would revert to Sunday school manners for a candidate Elizabeth Warren or Mark Warner.   They have only one gear.

So, why not go with the willing candidate who doesn’t need to build her name recognition or fundraising base, who already has a loyal cadre of supporters and at least as compelling a resumé as any other contender?  (Okay, it’s hard to name any real accomplishment of Secretary Clinton, but so what? Who was the last Secretary of State who achievements you could reel off? Henry Kissinger?) Why not fall in line behind the probable nominee, save donors half a billion bucks that would be wasted in primary battles only to wound the eventual nominee, and get on with the inevitable, however ambivalent or fearful of another decade of incoming political artillery, backstabbing and caterwauling?

Not since Nixon in 1968 has a major party wandered into an election with a non-incumbent as scarred and battered as Hillary Clinton.  Why not nominate someone we know can take a punch and come back fighting, not fold like a cardboard suitcase? That’s not a bad attribute for someone who’s climbing into the presidential ring. The attacks will never end; the only real issue is whether Clinton, or Democrats, will allow the opposition strategy to succeed in its singular objective of knocking the strongest Democrat out of the race.

What Hillary needs to do is what any battalion under bombardment would do: create a diversion. Clinton needs to unveil a bombshell that resets her to encourage skeptics and non-acolytes to reconsider their perception of her. That suggestion will come in the next blog.

A Decision of Consequence

A decision by a key House Democrat last week could have major implications down the road for the shape and style of congressional politics for years to come. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the 56 year old budget wunderkind who enjoys broad respect in the Caucus, announced he would be leaving his safe Montgomery County seat to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

In a number of ways, what could be good news for Van Hollen – there are things in life worse than a seat in the U.S. Senate, even in the minority – could create many uncertainties in the House. Van Hollen has played a crucial role in a range of ultra-high level negotiations as the seeming Ranking-Member-for-Life of the Budget Committee and House Democrats’ trusted point man during fiscal cliff and debt ceiling confrontations. A telegenic, articulate and passionate Democrat, Van Hollen is also an accomplished legislator, helping lead the fight on the Ways and Means Committee for last year’s ABLE Act, one of the few important bills to make it through the partisan minefield. (See my earlier blog on the ABLE Act which allows parents to create tax protected savings accounts for children with special needs.) He also has fashioned a progressive budget package, promoted climate change legislation, and was the longtime leader in the battle for the DISCLOSE Act to reveal the source of political donations.

Van Hollen’s easy manner and upbeat style camouflages a skilled and effective politician, traits he will need in his coming Senate campaign. He came to Congress via one of the most unusual paths a Democrat can imagine: he defeated a Kennedy (well, actually, Mark Shriver, a Maryland delegate, but close enough.) Van Hollen has deep roots into state politics; he served in the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate before defeating eight term moderate Connie Morella in 2002 for a House seat. Doubtless he anticipates winning a huge margin in Montgomery County to help offset the votes of Democrats in Baltimore, home to some of his potentially most challenging rivals.

It seemed to many observers only a matter of time before Van Hollen found himself either chairman of the Budget Committee, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, or a top member of the House Leadership, an exclusive ensemble in which he has served as Assistant to the Speaker (Pelosi) and other appointive capacities for years. His name was surely on the short list of candidates for Democratic Leader, Speaker, or Whip whenever change came to the current Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn troika.

But Van Hollen prefers to roll the dice and try for a Senate seat, perhaps anticipating a quicker return to a majority in the so-called “Upper Body” than is likely in the House where gerrymandering and population concentration skew seats against Democrats. In all likelihood, he will not have a free ride across the Capitol. Already, some progressive groups in Maryland have begun touting Rep. Donna Edwards, an energetic and outspoken liberal who has joined with Leader Nancy Pelosi to announce the Maryland representative’s chairmanship of the House Democrats’ “Democracy Task Force: Restoring People-Powered Politics,” an initiative to “reduce the influence of big money in politics and provide key reforms to bring transparency to our country’s campaign finance and election laws.”

Other potential challengers for the Democratic Senate nomination include Rep. Elijah Cummings, an astute and respected member who has ably served as Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and who recently teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on behalf of a “Middle Class Prosperity” initiative. Also, second term Rep. John Delaney might prefer to reach into his deep pockets of personal cash in pursuit of a Senate seat, and Rep. John Sarbanes, a five -term member who has focused on campaign finance reform and bears the famous surname of his father, Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

It goes without saying that Democrats are hoping that some of these candidates will look over the field and decide to stay put. (Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, while mentioned as a potential candidate, has already taken himself out of consideration for the Senate seat.) It would be an expensive proposition to have to spend money to ensure Democratic replacements in 4 or 5 Maryland seats – all of which are eminently winnable, but with non-incumbents, you never can take election for granted. And there would be the cumulative loss in next-generation talent with the likes of Edwards, Sarbanes, Delaney and Van Hollen dropping out of the House simultaneously.

With Van Hollen gone, attention will doubtless focus on likely aspirants like Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, who brings both an Hispanic background and potentially a big slew of California votes to any contest, Joe Crowley, a more moderate New Yorker who serves as Caucus Vice Chair, has close relations with the New York finance community, and plays a mean electric guitar, or someone not yet on the so-called “leadership ladder.”

Whatever happens in the Senate primary and future House leadership races, Van Hollen’s departure is going to leave a void in the House, if for no other reason that he enjoyed the confidence of Members as a thoughtful and savvy technician who also knew how to play the political and media games expertly.

Addendum…

Last December, I wrote a blog entitled @“Don’t Count Out the House Democrats” that pointed out the unappreciated power of a well-led, unified House minority in checking the exuberance of the new Republican minority. That strategic skill has been on full display this past week under the artful leadership of Nancy Pelosi who completely outmaneuvered Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans and got exactly the legislative outcome she wanted: a clean funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, with none of the “defund the Obama immigration executive order” poison pills the majority had insisted be included. Of course, there was no way for the Republicans to succeed in their hostage-holding strategy, an outcome that was clear to virtually everyone (including, I have no doubt, the beleaguered Boehner who has yet to devise a strategy for containing the wing nuts in his party who intimidate many who do not share their nihilist agenda. As has generally been the case since Republicans gained the majority in 2011, Boehner had trouble cracking 180 Republican votes for anything but the ain’t-goin’-nowhere message bills his Conference loves to pass and watch flame out.). But as a slew of favorable stories (below) noted, no one should minimize the talent displayed by Pelosi, who proved again she can engender broad support from her disciplined troops.   When she does, President Obama is vastly empowered because the chances for overriding a presidential veto are nil. Observers would do well to recollect the unprecedented discipline of Democrats when Pelosi served as minority leader, especially in the 2005-2006 period, which served her Caucus well in challenging George Bush and the renegade Republican majority of Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert. This is a leader who has a firm grip on the levers of power, and knows how to work them to her, and her party’s, political advantage.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pelosi-shows-democrats-how-to-wield-power-despite-house-gop-majority/2015/03/06/75a77308-c34a-11e4-9ec2-b418f57a4a99_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/us/politics/through-it-all-nancy-pelosi-keeps-sway-over-house-democrats.html?_r=1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/02/boehners-problem-isnt-just-house-republicans-its-house-democrats-too/

The Big Kiss Off

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.