It’s a rough Wednesday morning for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). On Tuesday he was confronted — again — with a very uncomfortable political reality: He is speaker in name only. That is, he has all the responsibilities of trying to lead the House without the ability to actually do so.
In the wake of Boehner’s failure to reinject the views of House Republicans into the Senate compromise talks on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown, there’s only one question anyone is asking: Where does the speaker go from here?
In the near term, the answer is clear. Barring some sort of legislative miracle, Boehner’s attempt to prebut any Senate agreement is dead. The action now moves back to the upper chamber, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been seemingly moving swiftly toward a deal.
The only role Boehner has to play now is to decide whether or not to put a deal cut by the Senate — assuming there is one — on the House floor, given the likelihood that a number of his fellow Republicans will oppose it. Combine the high political and economic stakes with Boehner’s repeated insistence that he will not let the country slide into default by missing the deadline to raise the debt ceiling and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t allow a compromise deal that had passed the Senate to be voted on in the House.
The longer term prognosis for Boehner is far fuzzier — and in conversations with a handful of longtime Republican hands in the wake of Tuesday’s flop, almost no one predicted that things would end well for the speaker.
“I think John is following in the footsteps of Newt — just 15 years later,” said one prominent Republican lobbyist granted anonymity to speak candidly about Boehner’s future. “This [vote], along with the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy, and [the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act], will be aggregated against him by the tea party faction, and he will not win another term as speaker.”
Boehner himself has been cagey about his future. “Every two years is a decision about just what you want to do, but I fully expect to remain speaker,” he told Bloomberg in the early summer. He has generally refused to speculate since then about what he might do (or not do) next.
That decision may well have been made for him over the past month as Boehner tried repeatedly to appease the most conservative wing of his party while also passing government funding legislation that would have a chance at making it through the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House. Each time, his attempts failed as the tea party wing demanded concessions on Obamacare — defunding, delaying, eliminating the employer contribution for congressional staffers — that amounted to poison pills for the Senate and White House.
Pushing for those things may have strengthened Boehner’s standing in the GOP conference. And while there has been a lot of talk about the “Hastert Rule” when it comes to the fiscal standoff, Boehner has not run afoul of it.
But broadly, what Boehner is left with is another year (or so) as the leader of a conference that has shown a decided lack of willingness to fall in line behind him. It’s hard now to imagine Boehner exerting his will on the House majority to pass some sort of immigration reform legislation between now and the 2014 midterm elections despite the near-unanimous belief within the party’s professional class that not doing so could doom the GOP’s chances of winning the Hispanic vote forever.
In short: Boehner has the shell of a speakership right now. With all that came before this latest rebuke from within his own conference , it’s hard to see how he picks up the pieces and moves forward with any sort of momentum or force behind him. Then comes the 2014 election and a stark choice: Leave on your own terms or run the very real risk of being thrown out of leadership by your colleagues.
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