WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner has shored up his political clout after a shaky month, persuading his Republican caucus to pick its fights with Democrats more strategically.
His impressive rebound, aided by face-the-facts confrontations with colleagues, helped the government avoid a potential default on its financial obligations – for three months, at least.
It also reassured establishment Republicans who feared the House majority was becoming so unpredictable that it endangered the party.
But the patched-up GOP solidarity and Boehner’s ability to pass bills without Democrats’ help are certain to be tested again.
Surprising news this past week about a late-2012 economic slump might re-energize arguments over tax increases and impending spending cuts. An even bigger challenge will be the immigration overhaul proposals headed toward Congress.
The nation’s highest-ranking Republican, who recently confronted open talk of a possible overthrow, has calmed the waters remarkably, for now.
December was a grim time for Boehner. Rank-and-file Republicans forced him to withdraw in embarrassment from White House negotiations over the much-feared “fiscal cliff,” the combination of deep spending cuts and end-of-the year tax increases.
January was worse. Boehner, R-Ohio, twice had to rely on Democrats to pass major bills, and he watched a dozen fellow Republicans refuse to back his re-election as speaker.
Within days, however, he steadied his ship and persuaded his colleagues to go along with his plans to be more strategic and patient.
The implications went beyond one politician’s fate. Financial markets and corporate planners were reassured when House Republicans agreed to postpone a showdown over the government’s borrowing capacity.
It marked a significant cooling off by GOP conservatives, many of whom had been saying President Barack Obama’s re-election meant little. Now they publicly were starting to accept the limits of minority party status in Washington.
“We’re too outnumbered to govern, to make policy,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who had defied Boehner on votes in January on the fiscal cliff and hurricane aid. “But we can make a serious impact on spending” by picking when and where to fight, Fleming said.
Republicans say Boehner’s biggest breakthrough came at a two-day House GOP retreat in Virginia. With his restless caucus shut away from distractions, he lined up speakers from inside and outside Congress to help explain what he saw as fiscal and political realities.
In a speech a few days later, Boehner summarized the case he made to his colleagues. In the upcoming debates over taxes and deficit spending, he said, Republicans must decide “where’s the ground that we fight on? Where’s the ground that we retreat on? Where are the smart fights?”
The decisions will come soon.
Aside from big spending cuts scheduled to start March 1, lawmakers must choose whether to fund the government for another year. Some conservatives say they may temporarily shut down the government if Democrats don’t accept deep spending cuts and no new tax revenues.
Boehner, at least for a while, can bask in achievements that were far from certain just a short time ago.
Dozens of House Republicans who had once refused to increase the debt ceiling without corresponding spending cuts – a position Boehner had just abandoned – backed down after the House retreat. Republican campaign strategists fear severe setbacks if voters blame the party for a default on U.S. financial obligations.
The concessions also seem to have put the speaker back on track for passing major bills with solid GOP majorities.
Early in January, Boehner twice had to abandon the “majority of the majority” rule that has guided House speakers for years. That rule says that whenever possible, a speaker wants to avoid passing major legislation that most of the speaker’s party members oppose.
But unyielding Republicans forced Boehner’s hand Jan. 1 on the fiscal cliff.
He had to rely chiefly on Democrats’ votes to enact an Obama-backed budget deal to avoid a tax increase on most Americans and instead raise them for the more affluent. Two weeks later, Boehner again had to accept most Republicans’ abandonment on a deficit-financed spending bill to help victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Perhaps Boehner’s darkest moment came on Dec. 20, when conservative colleagues rejected his counteroffer to Obama’s bid to raise taxes on the wealthy.
The setback not only embarrassed the speaker, but also forced him to the sidelines, requiring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to step in as the top GOP on the fiscal cliff.
Yet within four weeks, Boehner and his allies had vastly improved party discipline and coherence.
Boehner made his closing arguments at the party’s annual mid-January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where reporters and other outsiders were mostly kept at bay.
A daylong session began with Boehner explaining what he saw as the financial and political “facts about the debt ceiling,” a participant said. Next up were his top lieutenants, to amplify his remarks and discuss possible options: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s vice presidential nominee last year.
They left no doubt of the party hierarchy’s allegiance to Boehner.
House Republicans agreed to postpone the debt-ceiling showdown for three months. That will let Congress deal first with two less dire issues in which Republicans feel they have more leverage: the scheduled start of big, across-the-board spending cuts and the need to approve funds to keep the government running another year.
“Everybody took a hard look at it and said we can’t govern from the House of Representatives,” said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. Rather than confront Obama “army to army,” McKenna said, Republicans decided to “do a little more sniper action.”
It’s unclear how long the calm will last.
The 151 House Republicans who voted against the Boehner-backed fiscal cliff deal on Jan. 1 “will get tired of the incrementalism of the debt ceiling” issue, McKenna predicted. For now, however, he joins others in saluting Boehner’s breakthrough.
The decision to put other deficit-reduction issues ahead of the debt ceiling decision, McKenna said, “is probably one of the most artful things the House Republicans have done in the last 12 years.”