John Boehner wants to talk. Badly.

October 7, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wants to have a "conversation" with President Obama and Senate Democrats. Big time.


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

In the space of a single Sunday interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos (full transcript here), Boehner used the word "conversation" a whopping 22 times, including this gem:

"It's time for us to sit down and have a conversation. That's what the American people expect. That's what I've offered for the last ten days. Let's sit down and have a conversation. You know, we've had conversations before. Why can't we have one here?"

No politician -- especially one who has been around as long as Boehner -- accidentally uses a single word almost two dozen times in the space of a single interview.

So, what's he up to? Well, here's our theory.

Boehner does not want to be in this situation. (Stephanopoulos played Boehner a few clips from the past in which the speaker said as much.) He is, at heart, a conservative, yes, but a pragmatic one. The idea that the House would vote to repeal or replace Obama's health-care law 40 times is not one that came from the strategic mind of Boehner, for example.

So, why are we where we are? Because Boehner is, at root, a survivor; remember that he was cast from leadership after the 1998 election and marched slowly back to the top of the party in 2006. And, as a survivor, Boehner understands that the only way he stays on as speaker if Republicans hold the majority in 2015 is if the cast-iron conservatives view him as someone who understands them.

That's why he has hewed so closely the cast-iron conservative line both in the run-up to the shutdown and in the shutdown itself. (Boehner acknowledged to Stephanopoulos that he preferred a different fight; "I thought the fight would be over the debt ceiling," he said. "But you know, working with my members, they decided, well, let's do it now.")

And it's why Boehner is pushing so hard for a "conversation" with Obama. Simply by getting that conversation/negotiation, Boehner can show his Republican members that he got the administration to give, to move off the "we will not negotiate" position that the president has repeated time and time again over the past few weeks.

The harder part for Boehner is getting something out of that conversation with Obama and/or Senate Democrats aside from it simply happening. For Boehner to survive politically within his conference, he can't be seen as capitulating to the White House to reopen the government or raise the debt ceiling. At the same time, he lacks much leverage since most polls show Republicans being blamed more than Democrats for the shutdown, and he's already on the record as being unwilling to let the country default.

Boehner knows that political reality. His calculation is that if he can get a "conversation," then the door is open for more concessions from Democrats that might just allow him to declare victory. But, it all starts with convincing Obama that a conversation is necessary.

Fixbits: 

A majority of the House now appears to support a "clean" CR. But Boehner says the votes are not there.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Congress is "playing with fire" in the debt ceiling debate.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said it's "irresponsible" for Obama to be talking about default.

The House on Saturday voted 407-0 to approve back pay for furloughed federal workers.

Obama said he would "think about changing" the name of the Washington Redskins football team.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) reversed course and will now ask for his paychecks to be withheld during the government shutdown.

Must-reads: 

"The question facing Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Stay or go?" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post

"Boehner, White House harden stances as shutdown continues, potential default nears" -- Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

"In Conversation: Antonin Scalia" -- Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine

"Some tea party congressmen find signs of political backlash at home" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

"In Virginia governor’s race, McAuliffe calls on Cuccinelli to denounce shutdown, Cruz" -- Ben Pershing, Washington Post

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