Being John Boehner

July 3, 2013

The emails of WaPo's senior congressional correspondent Paul Kane are legendary for their detail and depth of insight. But unless you know him, you don't get to share in PK's wisdom. Aiming to right that wrong, we have taken to emailing back and forth with him and then sharing those missives with the Fix community. 

Our latest subject is House Speaker John Boehner.  We emailed about what it's like to be him and how much longer he wants to keep doing this.

FIX: Ok, PK. John Boehner has gone totally incognito over the last few months. But, his time is coming. Immigration. Debt ceiling. Maybe the farm bill (again). All of this is coming down the legislative pike for Boehner in the next few months.

So, what does he do? And, because I am fascinated by this, how does whether or not he plans to be Speaker in 2015 factor into his approach — if at all?


House Speaker John Boehner

PK: Ok, let’s deal with the substantive legislative questions first. On immigration, Boehner showed his hand a few weeks back by saying he does not see “any way” to bring immigration to the floor unless he’s got a majority of Republicans behind him.

That means the bill that clears the House – if such a bill does clear the House – is going to have very tough border security provisions, and it’s an open question as to whether it will include a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

It’s anyone’s guess what happens when the House-Senate bills are matched up, as they will likely be very different. “We’ll see when we get there,” Boehner said when asked. The debt ceiling is sooooooo far off (early November maybe), that there’s just not a lot of bandwidth being devoted to that issue right now.

There is a timeline setting up here for a perfect storm in the fall/early winter. You have the fiscal deal keeping the government open expiring Sept 30, the possibility of a House-Senate conference on immigration lasting into the fall, and then the debt ceiling hitting in early November. There’s a lot of toxicity in each of those issues, given the conservative base’s views on immigration and budget matters.

No one really knows what Boehner wants to do beyond 2014. I have talked to 15 different House Republicans [recently], and I had a lot of different responses as to whether Boehner even wants to be speaker in 2015. One area of agreement: how he handles this fall will be determinative as to whether he can consider seeking a third term wielding the gavel.

FIX: My gosh…that would be some kind of legislative storm. And if we've learned anything about how Congress works over the past few years, it's that they are like a college kid with a term paper to do; they wait until the very last possible minute and then hammer it out.

I still keep coming back to Boehner the person in all of this. In your piece on Sunday, you wrote this about Boehner's approach to persuasion and punishment: "His leadership style does not involve rapping knuckles, breaking arms or even threatening to rap knuckles or break arms."

I feel like he was elected to his current post, at least in part, by a rejection of the tactics that then House Majority Whip/Majority Leader Tom DeLay used to strong-arm people into voting with him. (The man Boehner beat to be elected Minority Leader was Roy Blunt, a former DeLay consigliere.)

The question I have is what if Boehner was more of a, for lack of a better word, hard ass?  He still probably wouldn't reach the likes of, say, Steve King on immigration but would he have more sway with that next ring of conservatives who he'll need on both immigration and the debt ceiling?  Or would a heavy-handed approach fail?

PK: I just don't think Boehner is capable of being a hard ass, as you put it. This has been an issue long before the tea party, don't forget that he blew the first TARP vote in 2008 when he only got a third of his conference to vote for it. His closest allies, guys like [Tom] Latham and [Steve] LaTourette, voted against that.

The question for the ages is whether they could have assembled the leadership team in a different way that could have included someone else who played bad cop. [Eric] Cantor just isn't a trusted lieutenant and [Kevin] McCarthy is not seen as a tough guy either. The real old timers says the "Hammer" image of DeLay is over blown, and what he did so well was coaxing people on the policy/political angle, advancing the conservative agenda little by little -- and then occasionally using fear.

[Nancy] Pelosi operated very much in similar fashion, only rarely using true payback (ie, booting [Jane] Harman out of the Intel Committee slot). These guys now are still trying to figure out their roles together, and it's led to a lot of confusion and a lot of whispering about who's going to have which job in 2015.

But the stakes on immigration can't be higher, and more clear. Since I last emailed you, Boehner went even further, saying that he would adhere to the majority of the majority on any immigration bill, the first draft or the House-Senate conference report. He's got no wiggle room left here, they now either have to go get the votes or have another failure in their laps.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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