House speaker’s easygoing style proves a weakness during ‘fiscal cliff’ crisis


House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) leaves his office on Capitol Hill on Saturday. (Drew Angerer/GETTY IMAGES)
December 29, 2012

It appears that the story of John A. Boehner and his problems will soon become a dominant theme in all of American politics. Again.

Boehner (R-Ohio), the 63-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives, has been a central character in the unhappy tale of this Congress: first a hero, then a tragic figure. It turned out that the very trait that brought Boehner to power — an amiable, hands-off style — became a flaw once that power was his.

At key moments, rebellious conservatives simply deserted a speaker they liked, but did not fear.

Now, Boehner will probably face another test on the way to a resolution of the “fiscal cliff.” If leaders in the Senate strike a deal to end the current crisis, the speaker would then be required to get it through the House dominated by his skeptical caucus.

That drama would play out in just the next few days, but its outcome could shape Washington politics for the next two years. If Boehner cannot bend the House to his will, he might lose his speaker’s gavel. Or Boehner might keep his job, but lose even more leverage and stature in Washington — if his Republican members are blamed for bringing on an economic disaster.

What going over the 'fiscal cliff' would mean . . .

“Boehner’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), one of Boehner’s closest allies in Congress. He meant Boehner’s lenient ways of leading — a contrast with the high-control leaders who preceded him, including former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“She got out there and broke arms and got it done. Boehner has not been willing to do that. I give him high marks for that,” LaTourette said. “But it’s not a very effective way to do business.”

On Saturday, party leaders in the Senate were still trying to find a deal that would cancel — or at least delay — the big tax hikes and painful spending cuts expected to take effect in a few days.

Boehner waited, in a sidelined role that underscored his diminished power. When the year’s biggest deal is struck, it appears, the House speaker will not be in the room.

“The only commitment we’ve made to the president and [Senate Majority Leader Harry M.] Reid is, whatever you pass, we will bring to the floor — either to amend, or accept,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said Saturday.

That House vote might happen Sunday, Monday or even Tuesday.

There is one way that this could all turn out well for Boehner.

That would be if the Democrat-controlled Senate somehow agrees to a deal that 100 or more House Republicans could also support. Then Boehner could fulfill a key pledge to his members: He said he was not interested in passing any bill that would pass with mainly Democratic votes.

There are at least two ways this could turn out badly.

First, the House could reject the Senate’s deal, and send the country over the “cliff” — bringing on higher tax rates and painful spending cuts. Polls already show the public is ready to blame the GOP for this. Boehner would become the face of a national disaster.

Another bad outcome for Boehner: A deal passes, but just a few dozen Republicans join a larger number of Democrats to vote “yes.” Then Boehner would be seen as having given away the majority’s power. He might even face a challenge for reelection when a new term begins Jan. 3.

On Saturday — with the outlines of a potential deal still sketchy — several Republicans said Boehner was still powerful enough to get what he wanted. Whatever that turned out to be.

“I think most people right now seem to be underestimating the strength he has in the Republican conference,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a longtime Boehner ally. “If there’s a deal that he thinks is the appropriate deal, he can sell it to the House. There’s no question of that to me.”

But others have said that it will be the deal, and not the salesman, that will make up their minds.

“I think most people like myself are looking for far more than what’s probably going to be able to be delivered” in any deal engineered by the Senate, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said. “We’re going to have to evaluate it. . . . There’ll probably be some room for improvement from the House perspective.”

These last, frantic days of the 112th Congress make a sharp contrast with its first day, when Boehner took his gavel, cried and promised to be a new kind of speaker.

There would be no earmarks, those hometown spending projects used to win over wavering members in the past. There would be less of the traditional backroom arm-twisting. Members could choose their own agendas, vote their own consciences.

“The House works best,” Boehner said, “when it is allowed to work its will.”

Since then, aides say, the speaker had achieved many of his ambitions: Washington’s focus has turned toward spending cuts instead of spending increases. Many House members have spoken happily about the freedom Boehner has given them to pursue their interests.

But it turned out that Boehner’s pledge was in direct conflict with another of the speaker’s goals. As the top Republican in Washington, Boehner also wanted to be a tough negotiator with President Obama and Reid (D-Nev.).

To do that, he needed the House GOP to line up solidly behind him. Time and again, it did not.

In April 2011, Boehner struck a deal to avert a government shutdown. He lost 59 Republican votes. In August 2011, he cut a deal to avert the debt-ceiling crisis. That time he lost 66 Republicans. In February, he agreed to a compromise that kept payroll taxes from rising. That time there were 91 defections.

This month, Boehner sought to engineer a show of force, to demonstrate that his caucus was really behind him on the fiscal cliff. The speaker sought a vote on “Plan B,” which would have allowed taxes to rise only on marginal income above $1 million per year. That would have affected only a tiny sliver of the population: 400,000 families.

But conservatives revolted at the idea of voting to let taxes go up on anybody. Boehner pulled the bill. “Plan B” became an unintended show of weakness instead.

Since then, some conservatives outside Washington have called for a coup against Boehner. And even earlier, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) had nominated former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to have his old job back, according to news media reports.

But — barring a major disaster in the next few days — Boehner’s job seems safe.

Hill staffers say there are few potential challengers with the independent support, and the incentives, to take Boehner on. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has stuck close to Boehner in this current crisis. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the popular former vice-presidential nominee, seems unlikely to want a party-splitting coup attempt.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) just lost a race for the fourth-highest spot in the GOP hierarchy — making him an unlikely choice for the speakership.

“It’s not some sort of sign of impending doom here by any stretch of the imagination,” said Huizenga, the freshman. “I think Boehner’s solid in his support from the caucus.”

Rosalind S. Helderman and Paul Kane 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.
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