The fiasco that has become the payroll tax cut-unemployment benefits extension fight has called into question the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Dana Milbank and Greg Sargent go right at it in their pieces today. And I agree with them 100 percent. But I think there’s a need for some blame-sharing. Sure, Boehner is the leader. But Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the majority whip. That there have been so many legislative failures should call into question not only his ability to count but also whether he has the speaker’s best interests at heart.
What’s a majority whip, you ask? That’s the person who keeps a running tally of where the votes are and aren’t for whatever bill or plan the leadership might be pursuing. With that information, the speaker can guide the bill or plan to a successful conclusion. Think of it this way, if the speaker is the captain of the ship, then the whip is his or her rudder. If the rudder is stuck or unresponsive all hell can break loose — as we are seeing.
The Senate voted to pass the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut. In a chamber where bills usually go to die, this was a remarkable bipartisan feat. Because we know Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was in contact with Boehner during the negotiations, it was not unreasonable to expect the House to follow suit. And as this trusty timeline from Senate Democrats notes, all hell broke loose when Boehner presented the Senate deal to the Republican caucus.
It’s not like this is the first time we’ve seen him wagged by the Tea Party tail of his raucous caucus. The most telling and frightening example was when Boehner walked away from the “Grand Bargain” he and President Obama were hashing out during the debt-ceiling drama last August. But it shouldn’t be this way. Not if McCarthy were adept at whipping or Boehner not seemingly living in fear of the Tea Party or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is widely rumored to covet Boehner’s perch.
I keep coming back to that meeting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had with me and other opinion writers last March where she questioned whether Boehner would have the votes to raise the debt ceiling.
“You gotta ask him,” she said. “You have to ask him. You know me; I’m a vote-counter. We never lost a vote. You understand. We never lost a vote. I never depended upon Republican votes, either. So, you’re going to have to ask him about the Republican votes. I just don’t know.”
Pelosi and her caucus cast some really difficult and unpopular votes — health care, cap-and-trade, stimulus — that ultimately factored into Democrats losing their majority and she the speaker’s gavel. But Pelosi got her caucus to deliver the votes she needed, thanks to the close working relationship she had with then-House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
This morning, I asked a former top House leadership aide whether Pelosi would have Clyburn whip the caucus on various aspects of a bill/plan so that she would know where they were BEFORE taking the bill/plan public. “Yes, she and Clyburn (and Hoyer) worked very closely together, so they all knew where the votes were,” the aide told me. “Occasionally, she’d be a few votes short and then squeeze people on the floor; but it was always do-able.”
Nothing seems to be do-able in Boehner’s House. And the more this dysfunction goes on the more I’m inclined to pin the blame on McCarthy than on Boehner. Nothing can be or will be accomplished as long as the rudder seemingly refuses to help guide the ship where the captain needs to go.