Speaker Boehner, who prefers a light touch, becomes an arm-twister in debt talks

With his power — and his party — in danger of a humiliating collapse, John A. Boehner had to become the politician he had promised he was not.

Boehner, a genial Ohioan famous for crying in public, had pledged that he would not be an arm-twister like some House speakers of the past. When he took the gavel in January, Boehner (R) promised to allow the House to “work its will.”

By Wednesday, that strategy had led him to a bad place. His party was in revolt. Many Republican lawmakers were publicly critical of his new plan to raise the national debt ceiling, and the bill’s prospects were seriously in doubt. If it failed, it would be a flare-gun signal that the party was fractured, the speaker was weak and the government was hopelessly broken at the worst possible time.

So Boehner reversed himself and morphed into a nascent arm-twister. “Get your ass in line,” he told Republicans in a closed-door meeting.

“People, for the most part, laughed,” said Rep. Kevin Brady(R-Tex.). “But they also understood.”

A day of backroom lobbying followed. Boehner set out to work his will on the House.

“John can be a tough guy when he has to be. It’s not his personality. But if he has to be, he can,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who supports the bill.

On Thursday, the House will vote, and the speaker will know if he was tough enough.

“It’s almost like a vote of no confidence in our party if we vote it down,” King said.

On Wednesday, Boehner brought freshman Republicans into his office, one by one, and sent his allies to hit up holdouts. The message was simple: If they voted against him, they would be handing a victory to the Democrats.

“There’s been no threats. There’s no, ‘Either you’re [with me] or you’re off this committee.’ Or, ‘We’re not going to help you financially,’ ” said Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.). Instead, he said, Boehner’s message to the rank and file was blunt: “He posed the question: What team are you on?”

“I’m going to be on Speaker Boehner’s team,” Grimm said.

Earlier in the day, Boehner told his caucus that he couldn’t win without “an army behind me,” according to one aide. Then, as he prepared to leave the podium, he summed up the message in an earthy phrase worthy of a football coach.

House of contradiction

Boehner’s shift, however subtle, reflects a long-running contradiction in the House’s vision of itself. History has shown that House votes are won through favors, persuasion and intimidation: There is a reason each party has an officer called a “whip.”

But legislators still like to imagine the place as a laboratory of democracy, where good ideas can succeed on their own merit.

“Above all else, we will welcome the battle of ideas, encourage it and engage in it,” Boehner said when he was sworn in as speaker in January. “The House works best when it is allowed to work its will.”

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Boehner said there was no contradiction at all between that position and the lobbying campaign the speaker led on Wednesday.

“The House working its will includes members having a complete understanding of the legislation, and its consequences and the decisions that went into crafting it,” spokesman Michael Steel said.

Boehner, 61, has been in Congress since 1991. He began as a protege of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), then was cast out of the leadership in the late 1990s. In the past decade, Boehner rose again — first to minority leader, then to speaker — as a counterpoint to the high-control leaders of the past.

That has showed up in small ways. While Gingrich would chastise wayward Republicans in meetings and ask them to explain why they weren’t following the party line, Boehner handles the same situation by making light of the awkwardness: “I know you’re going to vote with me on this,” he says, when he really doesn’t.

Boehner’s supporters have said this low-key approach makes sense for a time when rank-and-file members are far more independent. Others say it is less a strategy than a part of Boehner himself.

“He was an outstanding football player in high school, and he always valued the team concept,” said former congressman Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), who has known Boehner for 20 years. “Now that he’s the quarterback, I think he’s disappointed that others in the Congress are off on their own.”

Another high-stakes vote

The risks of Boehner’s approach were made clear in 2008. He was charged with gathering Republican votes for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a bailout measure supported by President George W. Bush.

“Just think about what happens if we don’t pass this bill. Think about what happens to your friends, your neighbors, your constituents,” Boehner said. His voice was breaking: “What’s in the best interest of our country? Vote yes.”

But fewer than half of Republicans voted with Boehner that day. The bill failed.

This time around, in the debt-ceiling showdown, Boehner again used a soft-touch strategy. He tried reason: “We’re doing the right thing; you all know the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do,” he said during one conference call.

Then he tried Hollywood. On Tuesday, Boehner and his lieutenants showed lawmakers a clip from the heist movie “The Town.” “I need your help,” Ben Affleck’s character tells a buddy. “I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re gonna hurt some people.”

Finally, on Wednesday, Boehner tried a harder sell. But it still wasn’t clear that he had done enough to win Thursday’s vote.

“The speaker goes off and makes an agreement, without people being part of that agreement, and then says, ‘You have to follow me,’ ” said Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who was undecided.

Still, Campbell said, “I’ve frankly been surprised that he’s been as normal and as jovial as he has — up until today.”

For all that Boehner has invested in Thursday’s vote, even if he wins, the task of raising the debt ceiling will require more persuading after the Senate takes action — either on the modified Boehner bill or something altogether different.

Staff writers Paul Kane, Rosalind S. Helderman and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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