Boehner and his majority are in disarray

October 16, 2013

House Speaker John A. Boehner lost the shutdown showdown in ignominious fashion, winning not a single concession of any value from Democrats and exposing his majority as powerless to advance conservative causes.

The one thing the Ohio Republican did seem to manage to do was hold onto his job. The always embattled speaker let his recalcitrant conservatives effectively run the show for the past month, and even as they lost badly, he won grudging respect from some who sought to take his gavel away earlier this year.

“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” Boehner told a Cincinnati radio host in his only public comments Wednesday.

The outcome left the speaker without any clear plan for governing or for unifying a wickedly fractured GOP caucus that has repeatedly divided when it needed to unite. The only slice of hope any Republican could muster Wednesday was that GOP lawmakers may have finally learned a lesson about banding together rather than undercutting their leaders.

Yet when the final roll call fell Wednesday night, after Boehner and a unified GOP leadership team all said they would support the Senate-passed legislation to open the government and avoid default, just 87 out of 231 Republicans who voted followed their speaker’s play call.

Senate leaders announced a budget compromise Wednesday that will raise the debt ceiling and re-open the government. In Play's Chris Cillizza breaks down which political players came out of the deal on top and which ones did not. (The Washington Post)

What the House GOP now faces is a series of contentious fiscal fights over the next four months along the same lines as the budget and debt-limit battles.

First up will be the House-Senate committee that is tasked with trying to resolve differences in competing farm bills that the two chambers passed, with the House taking a far more conservative approach and slashing funding for nutrition programs.

The legislation approved Wednesday night, which reopens the federal government and increases the nation’s borrowing authority into next year, also set up a House-Senate negotiation over a broader budget framework. That will be Boehner’s next chance at trying to win some form of broad entitlement reforms from President Obama.

With the GOP unwilling to entertain tax hikes in exchange, however, the outlook is already dim to meet the mid-December deadline for producing a draft.

The next truly big deadline is Jan. 15, when the new stopgap funding bill will expire and Senate Democrats are expected to push to delay automatic spending cuts slated to begin the next day. Another showdown on increasing the debt ceiling could follow.

“One of the things that happened in the last couple weeks is that, from my conversations with them, a lot more House Republicans realized they have got to figure this out as a team,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who used to represent a House district next to Boehner’s.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, were stunned by the collapse of any ability to advance a final legislative product from the House that might effectively corner Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and win some legitimate conservative concessions.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said aloud what some Republicans had been whispering about privately — that House leaders needed to focus on forming “a coalition of the willing.”

Schock was angry that the leaders spent almost a month passing legislation that was ­designed to court arch-conservatives so that they could boast that they had the votes entirely from their side of the aisle, even as the legislation was repeatedly flicked away by Reid’s Senate Democrats.

“Let’s not wait till the end of the day, let’s start at the beginning of the day and say, ‘Who wants to be a part of a constructive majority?’ ” Schock said. “Let’s start negotiating in the House with people who want to get things done.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House oversight committee, did not suggest reaching out to Democrats, but he noted that “Republicans don’t have the same discipline that Harry Reid and the Democrats have.”

That, he said, has left Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) unable to cajole a bare majority of 218 Republicans to support anything of real importance that has a chance of becoming law.

“We now know we need to do that, and this is Speaker Boehner’s challenge and Leader Cantor’s challenge, is to find a different system to get us to 218,” Issa said.

The inability to do that has left the House GOP effectively incapable of exerting power beyond the walls of HC5, the cramped Capitol basement meeting room where the Republicans usually gather once a week — and convened almost daily during these tense few weeks.

In the fiscal fights ahead, however, nobody can be sure whether the most conservative Republicans will be willing to join with their leaders or will stand on the sidelines with the collection of outside groups that advanced this particular strategy of shutting down the government to try to gut Obama’s landmark health-care initiative.

After weeks and weeks of letting the conservatives take the lead, Boehner tried late last week to advance a few different ideas that would possibly gain traction among House Democrats and, if passed in the House, give Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leverage in his final talks with Reid. Boehner’s attempt broke down Saturday morning, and by Monday night McConnell was on the verge of a deal with Reid that would not even include the repeal of a tax on medical devices that most conservatives and many Democrats oppose.

In conversations then and Tuesday morning, Boehner decided to give it one final try. He would push a bill that would repeal that tax, get an audit of how subsidies are handed out to low-income participants in the health-care law’s insurance exchanges and end subsidies to lawmakers, their staffs and senior administration officials participating in the exchanges.

That blew up at a Tuesday morning meeting in HC5. Conservatives thought those were insufficient concessions for allowing a debt-limit increase and funding the federal government.

Talks among Republicans broke down throughout the day, and the leadership team realized by late afternoon they had no chance at passage.

Boehner’s office announced at 4:30 that a vote would happen Tuesday night, but an hour later a notice went out saying the vote was unlikely to occur.

By 7 p.m., McConnell left the Capitol having already agreed to most of the much worse deal for Republicans.

Senate Republicans split on Boehner’s performance, with some expressing sympathy for him because of what he had to deal with.

“I just feel badly about the way the speaker of the House has been treated on his side, by members of his own party,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, adding, “I just bitterly resent some of the things that have gone on.”

Others contrasted Boehner’s performance with how McConnell cut a deal that averted political and financial disaster while also facing political pressure from his right flank in the form of a 2014 GOP primary challenge.

“We gave the House every chance to pass something over here. For a variety of reasons, they were unable to do it,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said.

He said there is no question McConnell is a stronger leader today for cutting this deal. “There are those moments when you either take the gas or take the initiative. And he [McConnell] took the initiative,” Isakson said.

Boehner said he keeps looking for the positive outcome.

“There’s no giving up on our team. None. And there’s no giving up in me,” Boehner said on the radio.

Staff writers Jackie Kucinich, Lori Montgomery and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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