John Boehner’s next act

January 3, 2013

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

John Boehner has been reelected Speaker of the House by his colleagues.


The vote was the first piece of good news Boehner has received in weeks. Consider that since mid-December Boehner has: a) watched as his plan to rally the House around extending the Bush tax cuts for all but those earning more than $1 million a year go down in flames, b) been totally cut out of the final fiscal cliff negotiations, and c) been pilloried by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) for delaying a vote on the Hurricane Sandy relief measure.

Boehner then finds himself reelected to the speakership at his own personal low point in the office, a bit of timing that raises a simple yet profound question: Where does he go from here?

We put that very question to a handful of smart Republican strategists -- most of whom acknowledged that there is no easy path forward for Boehner now.

"Is he taking a hit right now? Yes," said Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide. "But even the members voting 'no' on the agreement who also may not publicly support John privately appreciate his effort." Drawing on Boehner's time as a high school football player, Madden added: "He's going to get right back up, get back into the huddle and get his team ready for the next play."

That next play will almost certainly be the debt ceiling fight, and the stakes are high. "He had better deliver on spending cuts and entitlement reform come debt ceiling time," said one senior party strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly.

That's easier said than done. Boehner will (again) be caught between the conservative/tea party wing of his party who will refuse to give up the leverage of the debt ceiling and President Obama, who made clear before he left for Hawaii that he has no plans to watch as the debt ceiling is used as a bargaining chip.

Boehner, a pragmatist and institutionalist at heart, is naturally drawn to making a deal. But, as the debt ceiling fight of 2011 and the fiscal cliff fight of 2012/2013 have proven, he "leads" a group that is simply not interested in compromise. And that is the definition of a no-win situation.

That reality provokes an even more interesting question: Does Boehner want to be speaker anymore? And, if so, for how long?

Boehner is not someone who speaks all that freely about his own political plans, so divining the answer as to how long he decides to stay and/or stay on as speaker is difficult. But his vote in favor of the fiscal cliff compromise deal -- Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, who are the second- and third-ranking Republicans in leadership, opposed it -- suggests that Boehner may not be all that long for the speakership or the House.

Boehner has been in the House since 1990 and will be on the cusp of 65 years old in 2014. If he left after the 2014 election, he would have spent four years as Speaker, half the time that the last Republican Speaker -- Denny Hastert -- held the job but an equal period to the reign (and that is the right word) of Newt Gingrich  Other recent Democratic Speakers -- Nancy Pelosi, Jim Wright -- also held the job for two terms.

The decision Boehner will face then is whether to step aside before the next election to pursue a lucrative post-congressional career as a lobbyist/rainmaker or whether he wants to stick around to see if he can regain control of what is a decidedly unruly House conference. (Also always a possibility: Republicans lose the majority and Boehner is relegated to minority status.)

What happens over the next 18 months -- or even the next two months -- will likely play a major role in how Boehner sees the next few years of his life playing out. A win on the debt ceiling might make Boehner the Comeback Kid. Another defeat -- whether perceived or real -- might be the final indignity that makes up his mind about his future.

Fixbits:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was discharged from the hospital Wednesday following treatment for a blood clot in her head.

Boehner is reportedly done with one-on-one negotiations with Obama.

A great visualization of the "fiscal cliff" votes.

The filibuster reform effort in the Senate has lost the support of a key reform advocate -- Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is recovering from a stroke, gives his first interview, in which he says that three angels visited him in a dream and asked him if he was ready go with them. "No," he told them. "I'll hold off."

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is "all but certain" to run for Senate in 2014 if Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) retires. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is exploring a run and would start off as the favorite in any field.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) sounds like he's not ruling out a run against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in 2014. His office went so far as to correct a report that said he wouldn't run.

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R), whose prospective 2012 governor campaign flamed out in spectacular fashion, is reportedly set to run for Congress.

Must-reads:

"How McConnell and Biden pulled Congress away from the fiscal cliff" -- David A. Fahrenthold, Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

"The Democrats' Coming Civil War" -- Blake Zeff, BuzzFeed

"The GOP's Failed 'Plan O': Inside the Fiscal-Cliff Saga" -- John Aloysius Farrell, Chris Frates, Nancy Cook and Billy House, National Journal

"House G.O.P. Looks to a Round 2 Obama Hopes to Avoid" -- Michael D. Shear, New York Times

"Old fights shadow the new Congress" -- Ed O'Keefe and Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | January 2, 2013