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How John Boehner Is Playing Washington How John Boehner Is Playing Washington

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Congress

How John Boehner Is Playing Washington

The speaker will do just enough to make legislative action look likely. But in an election year, his members should get used to the idea that there will be no votes on the big issues.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

There were no fireworks when John Boehner stood before Republican members at their retreat in rural Maryland and unveiled the House GOP's "principles" for immigration reform. Even as the speaker outlined policies intolerable to hawkish conservatives, such as providing citizenship to undocumented children, there was, amazingly, no ugly dissent inside the Hyatt conference center.

There's a simple reason why: Most members realized that Boehner was presenting broad ideas to be discussed, not specific proposals to be voted on.

"I thought the principles were vague enough that most people could agree with them," Rep. Raul Labrador said after the retreat.

 

That was the idea.

At the beginning of the year, interviews with dozens of lawmakers and aides revealed a strategic dichotomy forming within the House GOP. Many conservatives craved a "bold" voting schedule in 2014 that would draw sharp policy contrasts on a host of issues. Republican leaders, on the other hand, saw such aggression as counterproductive in an election year and preferred to play it safe by pounding the issues of Obamacare, government oversight, the economy, and opportunity for middle-class Americans.

What has emerged is something of a safe middle ground. Boehner said Thursday that Republicans "will not shy away from" advancing major legislation this year. But the pace of that advance will be slow. Indeed, as GOP leadership carefully navigates an election year that appears promising for the party, Boehner is allowing conservative policy solutions to emerge from the conference—but they are meant to elicit positive headlines and score political points, not to expedite votes.

Take immigration. In the abstract, plenty of Republicans support legal status for undocumented immigrants (albeit only after several triggers, such as border security and employment verification, are in place.) Still, they say 2014 isn't ripe for such an overhaul, citing election-year politics and a belief that President Obama is unwilling to enforce immigration laws. Boehner, knowing the reticence of his members yet understanding the necessity of appearing proactive on immigration, felt he had to act.

So the speaker released a nebulous outline of principles. Republicans rolled their eyes, sensing that significant legislative action was unlikely, but the media went crazy, splashing front-page headlines heralding the House GOP's embrace of legalization for the undocumented. And one week later, after lawmakers lodged obligatory concerns and reporters wrote glowing reviews, Boehner dutifully acknowledged that immigration reform probably won't happen this year.

"This is an important issue in our country," Boehner said on Feb. 6. "It's been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with."

The speaker was discussing immigration, but he could have been referencing any number of policies his GOP members want to bring to a vote—tax reform, health care, privacy, and welfare reform among them. Republicans want action, but it's becoming clear that most of these will share immigration's fate: Principles will be shared and a discussion will be had, but a vote will not.

Tax reform is the latest example. Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, made a splash last week by introducing a long-awaited overhaul of the tax code. Many conservatives have eagerly anticipated Camp's proposal for three years, and are now agitating for a vote. "If this is a really powerful document that can rally a bunch of support in the party, then what's to stop us from having a vote in the House?" Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said of Camp's tax plan.

Boehner's response when asked about Camp's plan on Wednesday: "Blah, blah, blah, blah."

Leadership sees the details of this proposal, such as eliminating popular deductions, as politically perilous. But they also know how enthusiastic some members are about tax reform. So rather than rankle conservatives by suffocating the plan altogether, or irritate the business community by bringing a risky proposal to the House floor, Boehner's team is content to have Camp to unveil his plan—allowing for a broad messaging campaign but not a specific vote.

This head-faking has provided GOP leadership with a blueprint for 2014. Now, with immigration and tax reform essentially taken off the table, and fewer than 75 legislative days left before midterm elections, Boehner's team will have to grapple with but a few more potentially troublesome policy pushes.

Privacy legislation, if it's a libertarian-backed bill with teeth, is unlikely to reach the floor.

Same goes for welfare reform. A group of conservatives, led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have worked with the Heritage Foundation on a proposal to roll back welfare spending to pre-recession levels and add work requirements to the food-stamp program. But a vote on this plan is unlikely. Tinkering with the social safety net is always hazardous, and, as with other bold proposals, leadership won't risk an election-year backlash by voting on something that stands no chance of clearing the Senate.

The one major issue that Boehner's strategy won't apply to is Obamacare. Conservatives have demanded action—and were promised votes—on an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Majority Leader Eric Cantor earned applause in Cambridge when he guaranteed an Obamacare replacement plan, and is beginning to meet with colleagues to piece something together. Cantor is widely expected to deliver.

Still, as National Journal reported in January, the House Republican health care plan is likely to be a medley of poll-tested proposals slapped together— not one of the comprehensive alternative plans that conservatives have been boosting.

For conservatives who demanded an aggressive, wide-ranging legislative agenda in 2014, winding up with one vote on a watered-down health care bill might not suffice. "Instead of talking, we could actually act—and we could have a real impact," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a frequent critic of leadership. "It's easy to blame Harry Reid and the president for everything, but we're missing a lot of opportunities. Standing back and waiting is not going to win elections."

Still, after initially decrying a play-it-safe strategy, other conservatives now sound comfortable with the approach. "When you put a bill out there," said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, "it has a lot of details that can detract from the overall concept."

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