A host of dynamics in the GOP have forced him to align himself with a camp of hard-core conservatives who, for much of the past three years, have made his life miserable.
Since Boehner became speaker in 2011, these lawmakers, most of them elected in 2010, have challenged his leadership and questioned his conservatism. They have defied him on one big vote after another, often throwing the House and sometimes the country into disarray.
Boehner’s unyielding position on the six-week government funding bill, which the Senate passed, is a testament to the power of that conservative bloc and a concession to its members. The insurgents are now his palace guards.
The speaker’s closest allies say he cannot afford to defy those on his right flank by ending the shutdown with largely Democratic votes.
Doing so would undermine his position among his members going into negotiations with the White House and Democrats over raising the federal debt limit, which Boehner and his leadership team regard as more critical than the impasse on government funding. Coming up empty-handed for conservatives on both would have broader ramifications.
Republicans who support the speaker argue that if he is going to antagonize the conservatives in his caucus, it would make more sense to do so on the debt-ceiling debate rather than on the funding of the government.
As painful as the government shutdown may be to some, the Treasury Department’s ability to use special measures to manage the nation’s finances will run out Oct. 17, setting up a potential default on the $16.7 trillion debt that would wreak far more havoc on the global financial markets than the shuttering of federal agencies and national parks.
Within the increasingly right-leaning GOP caucus, Boehner might survive one big vote that relied heavily on Democratic support. But two important votes — on the government funding and the debt ceiling — with mostly Democratic backing would leave the already embattled speaker on political life support.
The result is that Boehner has thrown in with the most conservative Republican lawmakers. A few dozen of them have urged holding up the government funding legislation to extract concessions from Democrats on President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Leaving a nearly 90-minute meeting Wednesday evening with Obama and congressional leaders, Boehner repeated his demand that Senate Democrats appoint negotiators to try to compromise on government funding and provisions of the health-care law, commonly known as Obamacare.
“All we’re asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare,” Boehner told reporters.
Democrats are furious about Boehner’s refusal to abandon the “Weird Caucus,” as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has dubbed the House conservatives.
“John Boehner cannot take yes for an answer,” Reid said moments after the speaker left the White House.
Boehner’s hard line has been surprising to friends as well as foes, especially the conservatives — as many as two dozen of whom once plotted to overthrow him as speaker.
“We’re more united in the conference now than we’ve ever been,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), a second-term lawmaker. Eighteen months ago, the speaker “couldn’t pick me out of a lineup,” Farenthold said. “He now blows me kisses.”
The blown kiss is one of the speaker’s trademark gestures, delivered to allies and journalists alike with the same sentiment of snapping a towel in a locker room.
Reopening the government by passing the Senate’s version of the funding bill, with no language to curtail the health-care law, would infuriate conservatives such as Farenthold but could be done quickly.
There are 200 Democrats in the House, and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) pledged Wednesday that “all of ’em” would vote for a bill to fund the government at current levels through mid-November. At least 18 Republicans have vowed to support such a funding resolution, giving a majority of House members support for the Democratic plan.
Boehner’s leadership team has on three occasions this year watched the Democrats effectively become the ruling party by passing key legislation that most Republicans opposed.
On New Year’s Day, the House approved a tax package that preserved lower rates for all workers except the rich, securing just 85 Republican votes, or 40 percent of Boehner’s caucus. A few weeks later, just 49 Republicans supported federal disaster aid for Mid-Atlantic states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, and in late February, 87 Republicans supported a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
Those votes left Boehner in as weak a position as any speaker in modern times. By August, he and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were counseling their rank and file against trying to scuttle the government funding bill, which expired at midnight Monday, the end of the fiscal year. The leaders wanted to pivot to the fight on the debt ceiling, and they kept crafting options that would transfer some of that political energy from the government funding fight to the debt-limit clash.
“They got blown away,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), one of the agitators against Boehner who opposed the speaker’s reelection bid.
Faced with the rebellion, Boehner joined with the Huelskamp crowd and kept sending the Senate bills that would completely defund or delay the health-care law, knowing it would lead to a shutdown. Along the way, support diminished among Republicans for approving a “clean” resolution — one that wouldn’t weaken the health-care law.
According to lawmakers and senior aides, there may have been 170 GOP votes to approve a clean plan three weeks ago, but now maybe half as many would vote for such a bill — leaving Boehner back where he was on New Year’s Eve.
Now that Boehner has survived several days of the shutdown, his friends say there is no point in moving a clean funding resolution.
They said the shutdown is leverage in talks with Obama and the Democrats about lifting the debt ceiling. The two issues have bled together, they said, adding that reopening the government would weaken the speaker’s hand.
“Why in the world would you do that? You know, that doesn’t encourage anything. That’s basically at this point a surrender to the Democratic position,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a close Boehner ally.
It’s the worst-kept secret that one of the keys to Boehner’s persistence is that he has a position that almost no one else wants.
“He has the toughest job in Washington,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), one of the speaker’s most loyal foot soldiers.