Boehner sees his control of House Republicans slip away

At separate news conferences this morning, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered potential plans to end the government shutdown. Here's what they said—in less than a minute. (The Washington Post)

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) started Tuesday with a last-ditch attempt to exert control over his restive caucus, proposing a new plan to open the government and raise the debt ceiling in an effort to give Republicans a bit of leverage.

But as evening fell over the Capitol, it was increasingly clear who had control over the House GOP: no one.

Boehner struggled to accommodate his most vocal and hard-line members, adjusting his plan to address their concerns only hours after laying it out in a morning meeting with his caucus.

But even after the rewrite, even after cajoling lawmakers in small groups — attempting to convince them that passing a Republican plan in the House would give the party more power to win concessions from Democrats than if they allowed the Senate to take the lead — there were still not enough votes to pass it.

Before the defeat, some of Boehner’s friends, particularly former House members now in the Senate, fretted about the impact of another failure.

“Of all the damage to be done politically here, one of the greatest concerns I have is that, somehow, John Boehner gets compromised,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who entered the House in 1995 and was involved in several coup attempts at the time against Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “You know, I was involved in taking one speaker down; I’d like to be involved in keeping this speaker, because, quite frankly, I think he deserves it.”

Graham and others said Boehner’s latest strategy was as much about salvaging his tenure as speaker as it was about advancing conservative policy goals. Before the House GOP again surrendered, those Senate Republicans had said they believed that another failure would further imperil an already historically weak House speaker.

These Boehner friends do not expect him to be removed as speaker, but they worry whether any Republican policy goals will be able to make it through the House going forward.

Graham joined Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who was also elected to the House in 1994, in a meeting Friday in which they pleaded with Boehner to craft something that could win an overwhelming majority of his caucus and get signed into law.

By Monday night, the speaker had told Republicans he would make another try. By early afternoon Tuesday, Republicans were optimistic that Boehner could finally push something through the House that the Senate would be forced to consider.

But the speaker was unable to make it happen.

The death knell for the legislation came as the conservative group Heritage Action announced that it opposed the plan and urged lawmakers to vote against it. The group has been leading the effort to pressure Republicans to tie government funding to defunding the federal health-care law.

The day repeated a cycle that has defined the GOP since it retook the House in 2010 and played out over and over in the most recent fiscal fight.

In August, Boehner counseled his members in a conference call against risking a government shutdown by linking agency funding to the health-care law.

But spurred by Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and other outside groups, along with a bloc of a few dozen House conservatives, Boehner moved a bill in mid-September that would fund the government only if Democrats agreed to defund the law, known as Obamacare.

Again and again, as it became clear that the Senate would reject every attempt to use the crisis to dismantle the health-care law, Boehner stuck by conservatives.

On Tuesday, he altered key parts of his plan in a bid to win their support. Instead of funding the government until Jan. 15, the revised plan would do so only until Dec. 15. Boehner also dropped a proposal to delay a tax on medical devices, which had been a priority among some Republicans, in response to concerns from others that eliminating the tax would make the health-care law more palatable.

Instead of getting rid of the employer health-care contribution only for members of Congress and White House staffers, the revised version would also do so for congressional staffers, after some conservatives insisted that would be fairer.

Part of the challenge for Boehner is his slim margin of error. While House Democrats are unified, he can’t lose more than 15 votes from his caucus’s 232 members. That hands extraordinary power to small blocs of Republican lawmakers willing to stand firm in opposition to proposals from the party’s leaders.

And despite what most see as a debacle for Republicans, a core group of conservatives insisted Tuesday that they are winning their battle to force concessions from Democrats on fiscal issues.

The president, they say, has been forced into a negotiation, even though he has said he will cede nothing in exchange for opening the government and raising the debt ceiling. The nation’s attention has been focused on problems with the health-care law. And, they say, making Boehner move to the right is itself a victory.

“People said, ‘Don’t dare shut the government down, because the American people will hate you.’ And we’ve got resolve,” said Rep. John Fleming (La.). Fleming backed Boehner’s approach Tuesday morning.

“We’ve won in a lot of ways,” he said. “There are a lot of barriers we’ve broken down here.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said conservatives have succeeded in exposing problems with the health-care law.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up Obama­care for the whole nation,” he said, describing what his wing of the party had won in the shutdown. “Look, the rollout was atrocious, this is a fundamentally flawed plan, and we have made it crystal-clear to the American public that we stand with them on Obamacare.”

That attitude illustrated a split within the GOP that has only grown more profound in the days since the shutdown started: Hard-liners are sure that their position is gaining strength, while moderates and a number of Republican leaders counter that the party has experienced an epic collapse.

“We didn’t get anything. This has been a total waste of time,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), one of the most consistent critics of his party’s most conservative members.

“I think they think they won somehow,” he said. “Whatever echo chamber they live in, they’re only hearing good things.”

Added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), “The only reason the Democrats don’t look terrible is because we look worse.”

Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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