On New Year’s Day, in a cramped room in the Capitol basement, House Republican leaders faced an angry caucus. Democrats had negotiated them into a corner — virtually every American would be hit with a massive tax increase unless the House agreed to block the hikes for everyone but the wealthy.
A freshman lawmaker seized a microphone and demanded to know how the leaders planned to vote. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was a yes, but his top two lieutenants were opposed.
“If you’re for this and they’re against, we’ve got problems,” Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.) shouted at Boehner and more than 200 lawmakers present, according to Republicans who attended the closed-door meeting. Sure enough, they had problems. Hours later, Democrats helped Boehner pass the measure over the opposition of more than 60 percent of GOP lawmakers.
That vote, to avert the “fiscal cliff,” marked a breaking point for House Republicans, who had disintegrated into squabbling factions, no longer able to agree on — much less execute — some of the most basic government functions.
Ever since, Boehner has cautiously tried to steer his party away from that bitter moment, with varying success. A short-term strategy, which conservatives called “the Williamsburg Accord,” emerged from a bruising mid-January retreat. It restored enough unity to permit the House to dodge a government shutdown, badger the Senate into passing its first budget in four years and open investigations of the Obama White House.
But beyond those limited efforts, the House has not approved ambitious legislation this year. Lawmakers have instead focused on trying to re-brand the party around kitchen-table issues — although even some of those bills have run into trouble. And the most momentous policy decisions, including an immigration overhaul and a fresh deadline for raising the federal debt limit, have no coherent strategy to consolidate Republicans, much less take on the Democrats.
“We basically have gone three or four months where we built a bit of rhythm. It’s been better than the slug-fest of the previous two years,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who fought so furiously with leaders that they removed him from the Financial Services Committee in November. But, he added, “the thing you have to analyze is: Have we had a pretty good quarter because we stuck to the formula of Williamsburg? Or is it because we avoided the tough issues?”
Schweikert considers himself a guarded optimist, but interviews with nearly three dozen GOP lawmakers and senior aides revealed plenty of doubt. The majority is “adrift,” according to a longtime conservative. The top five leaders hail from blue states that voted for President Obama, making them out of step with a conference dominated by red-state Republicans. A junior Republican called it a “fractured” conference when it comes to the biggest issues.
The leaders have come under intense scrutiny. Barely 36 hours after the caustic New Year’s Day vote, Boehner faced a coup attempt from a clutch of renegade conservatives. The cabal quickly fell apart when several Republicans, after a night of prayer, said God told them to spare the speaker. Still, Boehner came within a few votes of failing to secure his speakership on the initial vote, an outcome that would have forced a second ballot for the first time in nearly a century.
The coming battles will test Boehner’s power and, many Republicans privately suggested, potentially reveal whether it’s time for him to go.
“This is a big summer and fall, a test for all concerned,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a close Boehner ally.
At the moment, House leaders have no plan for passing the test.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans filed into the same Capitol basement room, HC5, where they fought on New Year’s Day. They filtered past clearly marked NO SMOKING signs — which, as always, the Camel-smoking Boehner ignored — and settled into the same hard plastic chairs that have served as Washington’s toughest ideological fault line of the past 30 months.
The windowless room with two large-screen TVs and a couple of microphones on either side was handed over to rank-and-file Republicans, nearly 40 of whom waited their turn to offer ideas for what the GOP should try to get later this year in return for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling.
Some wanted more energy exploration, some entitlement reform and one lawmaker pushed to attach antiabortion measures to the legislative package, according to Republicans in the room.
This is the price of remaining in charge in today’s House: Boehner must always appear to be working from the bottom up, never seeming to impose his will.
“Gone are the days when the leaders decide what the conference is gonna do,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan.), a third-term lawmaker who recently joined the GOP leadership.
This bottom-up approach and the indecision it has spawned is nothing like the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, when Boehner began negotiations with a defiant speech demanding a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in increased borrowing authority, a principle that became the framework of the deal.
Many within the party wonder if there’s any approach Republicans will unify behind this time.
Several veteran Republicans, speaking on the condition of anonymity to criticize their colleagues, said they fear there are too many extreme budget hawks to approve a deal with GOP votes alone, further hampering their leverage in negotiations with the Senate.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is trying to rally support for a broad rewrite of the tax code in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling.
But many conservatives consider that insufficient to meet the Williamsburg agreement, which they hold requires a path to balancing the budget within a decade. At Williamsburg, Republicans also agreed to put off the debt ceiling fight until the fall and agreed to fund the government at sequester levels.
Some conservatives are talking about circulating a petition to impose an internal rule forbidding Boehner from advancing legislation that does not have majority support in the Republican Conference, a restriction that would have torpedoed the fiscal cliff bill.
Boehner has ducked specifics about the fall. “We’ve not made any decisions at this point,” he told reporters recently.
He said that Republicans are in a similar spot on immigration, indicating that the rank and file do not understand the issue.
“We’ve got to educate our members and we’ve got to help educate them about the hundreds of issues that are involved,” he said.
Boehner, 63, a former state legislator first elected to the U.S. House in 1990, hails from a political generation far removed from the classes of 2010 and 2012 — more than 115 lawmakers who campaigned against the backroom deals the speaker was so adept at cutting.
That makes House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), 49, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), 48, the emissaries to the newcomers. When it works, the division of labor fits their personal traits: Boehner is the broad political strategist, Cantor is the legislative implementer and McCarthy is the whip rounding up votes.
Yet the trio has often struggled to work together. Boehner boasts that his style is to not “break arms” when searching for votes, and McCarthy is a collegial Californian whose disposition is to spare the rod when it comes to the whip job. Boehner and Cantor have had an uneasy relationship for four years, although both sides say the two have gotten along this year.
To veteran Republicans and former lawmakers, the three were too tolerant of the younger generation from the outset. The freshmen rebelled against proposed 2011 budget cuts because they didn’t match the GOP campaign platform — a document almost none of them had endorsed. Leaders bowed to the new class and rewrote the legislation.
The resulting showdown with Democrats came within an hour of closing the federal government.
Late last year, leaders finally tried to assert themselves over the restive caucus. They ejected Schweikert and three others from key committees, moves widely viewed as coming from McCarthy, a rare moment when he cracked the whip.
Also, many members of the 2010 class are still sore about the financial quandary that then-Rep. Jeff Landry (R) was in last fall in Louisiana when facing Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R) in an election caused by redistricting. Landry’s friends said he was rebuffed by influential corporate donors, who believed leadership favored the four-term Boustany. Landry lost badly, outspent by a 2-to-1 margin.
Then came the chairman’s race for the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservatives. The most influential lawmakers and activists backed Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), who had rocky relations with leaders. Yet Rep. Steve Scalise (La.) won the secret ballot — an outcome thought to be orchestrated behind the scenes by Boehner and Cantor.
If leaders got what they wanted, though, some rank and file still did not come around.
Just past noon on Jan. 3, as the 113th Congress was being sworn in, Boehner faced a rare coup attempt. The normally composed McCarthy stood on the House floor screaming at Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho) and Fincher, who had been approached Jan. 1 by other conservatives interested in ousting the speaker. Boehner had pulled Fincher into the speaker’s office that morning for a conversation, several GOP sources said.
The conservatives had decided that Boehner was too overbearing, too top-down. The central gripe was freewheeling backroom negotiations with Obama, talking about trading $1 trillion in new taxes for what they considered modest entitlement reforms.
“It seemed like we did a lot of things without collaboration,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), a 47-year-old funeral home operator elected in 2010 whose Capitol Hill townhouse became a regular meeting spot for agitated lawmakers.
About 17 defectors were needed to deny Boehner an outright majority. The hope was that if they could block the speaker on the first ballot, they could convene the GOP conference in HC5 and compel someone else — maybe Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) or Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) — to challenge Boehner. Even if no one stood up and Boehner won on a second ballot, it would have been a humiliating rebuke.
Southerland, who has previously talked about his role only with the conservative Weekly Standard, said he read the Old Testament the night before the vote. He read the story of Saul and David, as the king of Israel tried to kill the future king. David wins and, with a chance to kill the king, decides to spare Saul.
Southerland woke up convinced that Boehner should be spared. Others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they, too, prayed before siding with Boehner.
“He’s not a God of chaos, he’s a God of order,” Southerland said.
When the alphabetical roll call began, the outcome was uncertain. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), one of those ousted from a key committee, was the first to oppose Boehner, instead voting for Labrador. During the Bs, Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) did not vote.
Sources close to Blackburn said she had suffered from a sinus infection that led to a bloody nose and caused her to leave the floor. Her colleagues took the move as a way for her to wait to vote until all the cards played out.
Fincher, who declined to comment for this article, and Southerland voted for Boehner.
When the alphabet was finished, 16 rebels had opposed Boehner, nine backing someone else and seven not voting. But he had 216 votes, the minimum majority. Because four Democrats were missing, the threshold dropped to 216 from the usual 218 tally. Boehner was safe — barely.
Bachmann, Blackburn and two others, given a final chance to vote, finally supported the speaker, giving him 220 votes.
After watching the white-knuckle tally in a private room, Boehner delivered an emotional acceptance speech that took some colleagues to task. “If you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you,” he said.
Since then, Boehner has adopted his lowest profile in 21 / 2 years as speaker. He is promoting a jobs plan, complete with its own laminated pocket card, that is a collection of tax and antiregulation bills, many of which were introduced in the last Congress. Cantor has pushed a family-focused agenda with names designed to be popular: Kids First Research, Helping Sick Americans Now, Working Families Flexibility Act.
Although most items have sailed to passage — only to face certain death in the Senate — Cantor received an uncomfortable reminder in late April of his caucus’s fickle nature and McCarthy again fought allegations that he is too soft as whip.
A few dozen Republicans opposed the modest Helping Sick Americans legislation because they said it came from nowhere. Instead, Cantor pulled the bill and held another vote to repeal Obamacare — their 37th attempt to repeal part or all of the landmark health-care law — to appease conservatives.
Aides to Cantor and McCarthy traded shots in the media, but the rank and file also bore plenty of blame. Cantor sent his monthly memo to lawmakers on April 5 summarizing that month’s agenda, including the health-care legislation.
“Who reads a memo?” said one member first elected in 2010, who is close to leaders.
This central problem — a leadership team still learning how to work together and a rank and file so green that even the leaders’ allies tune them out at times — has many wondering whether Boehner could win a third term as speaker and whether other changes are in store next year.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Labrador said.
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