Boehner’s leadership is tested in the budget battle

April 8, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner likes to lament that his party controls just “one-half of one-third of the government.”

But whether by design or necessity, Boehner managed to make the most of that limited leverage — both in forcing President Obama and the Democrats to come more than halfway on his party’s demand for spending cuts, and in making the absolutists in his own ranks accept the principle that compromise is part of governing.

The tense back-and-forth that brought the government to the brink of a shutdown Friday represented the first big test of Boehner’s leadership and a glimpse of how the new speaker will handle a job that has had more than its share of challenges: a tough economy, a Democratic president and Senate, a rebellious contingent of inexperienced tea party freshmen, and an ambitious, sometimes fractious team of lieutenants, some of whom have aspirations for Boehner’s job.

Boehner knew as well as anyone that the fight was a prelude to larger battles ahead. One will be over the House Republicans’ 2012 budget, which would make far bigger cuts in spending and would fundamentally change the nature of federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; another will be over needed legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling, which many of his freshman members have vowed to block.

As he announced the budget deal shortly before the Friday midnight deadline that would have brought a shutdown, Boehner framed it as a step toward a much larger goal: “We fought to keep government spending down, because it really will affect and create a better environment for job creators in our country.”

The final sticking point — a dispute over whether Republicans would prevail in their demand to include a provision ending federal funds for Planned Parenthood — underscored both the weakness and the strength of Boehner’s position.

On one hand, it allowed Democrats to make the argument that Republicans were using the must-pass spending bill to ram through less popular parts of their conservative agenda. On the other, the abortion issue and other extraneous “riders” added to the bill gave Boehner a stack of bargaining chips that he could trade at the last minute for further spending reductions.

The messy, fitful process left Democrats saying that they often had no idea whether Boehner had his hand on the tiller or was caught in his party’s political crosscurrents.

“It seems every step we take, it’s something just to poke us in the eye,” a frustrated Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said at one point this week. “They are not trying to arrive at the finish line. It appears that they’re going to do everything they can to satisfy the tea party.”

Having worked for days on the assumption that everyone was aiming for $33 billion in cuts, for instance, the Democratic negotiators were startled when Boehner indicated Tuesday that he was holding out for as much as $40 billion.

The Democrats left Thursday night’s talks convinced that Boehner had agreed to a deal, only to be told hours later by his staff that he had not, said one Democratic official, who agreed to discuss the details of the negotiations on the condition that he not be identified.

Boehner might have sown some of this confusion deliberately, to keep Democrats — and some of his own colleagues — off balance.

From the outset, Boehner, who likes to remind his members that he had a “front-row seat” for the politically costly government shutdowns of 1995, seemed determined not to repeat the GOP’s mistakes. Back then, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) boasted that he was eager for a government shutdown. Boehner said he would do his best to avoid one.

The provisions in the bill restricting abortion funding and environmental regulations were there by Boehner’s hand, or at least with his acquiescence. In a break with past leadership practices, Boehner opened the spending bill to unlimited amendments, something he said was crucial to making his 87 conservative freshmen feel part of the process.

“It’s very good for them to participate in this debate,” the speaker told reporters as the House debated the bill in February. “You know, half of the freshmen never served in public office. Allowing them to participate in this will speed up their development as legislators.”

Many of those new members, especially those who came to Washington on a mission to upset the existing order, had made no secret of their mistrust of the speaker. Indeed, his political career in many ways represented what they campaigned against.

At times, it was unclear whether Boehner could hold them together as the budget talks dragged on. Last month, 54 Republicans voted against their leadership on a bill to keep the government operating for an additional three weeks.

But by the final stretch, he appeared to have his members behind him. They cheered for Boehner in two emotional closed-door meetings this week as the teary-eyed speaker vowed to “stay on offense.”

“Guys were pretty pumped up, just for him being such a good leader and steering us the right way,” freshman Rep. Robert T. Schilling (R-Ill.) said as he emerged from one of those sessions. “He just thanked us for having his back. The guy loves the country, and he’s going to go in there and do what’s right for America.”

It was another mark of their new trust in the speaker that freshman lawmakers did not demand the details of his negotiations with the White House.

“He didn’t give us the exact numbers, and I don’t blame him,” said freshman Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.). “He’s the one negotiating at the table. He shouldn’t be undercutting his own ability to negotiate by telling everyone where he is. That doesn’t serve his purpose from the negotiating point of view.”

To underscore his view that the spending bill was only a starting point for his agenda, Boehner also refused to delay the introduction of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2012 budget, despite some concerns among Republicans that it would get caught in the politics surrounding the shutdown.

In many ways, forging ahead was a trademark Boehner move. “It’s my job to look out over the horizon, make sure I know where we’re going,” he once said when asked to define the role of speaker. “And to make sure the team is working together.”

Staff writers Paul Kane and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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