January 3, 2013

John Boehner (Getty Images)

John Boehner just won reelection as Speaker of the House of Representatives, meaning he successfully defied the threat of a conservative uprising that never quite materialized. But the narrowness of Boehner’s victory — he won with 220 votes, only after a return to those who had abstained — bodes very badly for the prospects of any future cooperation between House Republicans and the White House, and by extension, for the prospects of cooperation in solving the country’s biggest problems.

Those prospects already looked pretty bleak in light of the debt ceiling mess of 2011 and the fiscal cliff debacle that just concluded. But with even bigger issues looming to be resolved, today’s confirmation of the narrowness of Boehner’s support means the worst may yet lie ahead.

“What you’re going to see now is a passive-aggressive majority,” Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein told me just now. Ornstein said the vote would leave Boehner “weaker,” adding: “He’s done negotiating with the president.”

Boehner’s aides already confirmed yesterday that he’s done negotiating with Obama, because he feels “burned,” but the closeness of today’s vote, Ornstein notes, means there’s now real cause for this: He can’t get enough support from within his caucus for negotiating with the President. “The negotiating dynamic is no longer going to be one where Obama and Boehner will try to work something out,” Ornstein says. “It will start with negotiations between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.”

In the real world, despite conservative anger at Boehner, he did not really make major concessions to Obama. The 2011 debt ceiling and government shutdown fights really did end with Democrats making most of the concessions. Boehner’s decision to hold a vote on the bill that raised taxes on income only over $1 million was not a concession in any meaningful sense, despite conservative rage. His decision to allow a vote on the final deal — and his support for it — hardly constituted a major sell out, either, since the alternative (letting all the tax cuts expire) was far worse for Republicans.

Yet despite all this, Boehner still won only narrowly. In practical terms, Ornstein says, this all but ensures that the only way the House will be able to pass solutions to our remaining problems — such as on the debt ceiling, tax reform, and immigration reform — will be with large blocs of Democratic support. This, in turn, risks weakening Boehner further, and means governing compromises will be very hard won in the months ahead.

“The vote suggests that a Speaker who moves to get something done with the President, to govern, to problem solve, ends up with very serious headaches,” Ornstein said. “There will be many votes in which the only way he can get something through the House will be with more Democrats than Republicans.” This will create further “dissatisfaction,” creating further problems for the “ability to govern.”

And you thought the last two years were rough.