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.