Even before John Boehner traveled to the White House on day two of the shutdown, President Obama made it known he would be pressing Republicans to accept a clean spending bill—one that funds Obamacare and reopens the government. But as the speaker departed the Capitol, conservatives showed no concern that their leader might cave to those demands; Boehner had already sworn to them that no such resolution would pass the House.
And they took him at his word.
There is no shortage of intriguing story lines as the federal government wraps up its first week of shutdown. But the one with the potential to resonate on Capitol Hill long after this crisis abates is the sudden consonance within a House Republican Conference that has been sharply divided along ideological fault lines since claiming the majority in 2010. At this historic moment of deep partisan division on the Hill, House Republicans are more unified than they have been in recent memory. This solidarity bodes well for Boehner and his speakership, but it portends a protracted shutdown that is unlikely to end until Democrats somehow offer something acceptable to the conservative majority in the House GOP.
Over the past three weeks, Boehner and his leadership team have been greeted with enthusiastic handshakes from ultraconservative members and standing ovations behind closed doors. They also have executed several unanimous floor votes without a single GOP defection. And for this newfound harmony, conservatives credit their oft-maligned speaker.
"He's leading. That's the biggest thing ... that he's actually leading," gushed freshman Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida. "He listened to membership, and he's put himself out there, and he's standing strong. We're all so proud of him right now."
Such reverence for leadership is new. Back in January, Yoho was one of 12 Republicans to vote against Boehner's reelection as speaker, laying bare the visceral mistrust conservatives held for the top Republican in Washington. Soon after that incident, a cease-fire was called, and both sides made promises to promote cohesion and unity within the conference.
Still, a perception of Boehner persisted: He had gone soft. As a younger representative, members whispered, Boehner had been every bit the insurgent renegade itching for a fight with leadership. ("He was just like us," laughed Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, another of the 12 anti-Boehner votes.) But after ascending to the speakership, the narrative went, Boehner lost his edge. He kept advising conservatives to "live to fight another day," and they thought he lacked the stomach for any fight, on any day.
On Sept. 18, he surprised them. In a special conference meeting, Boehner informed his members, who had recently rejected leadership's modest strategy, that he would push a bill to temporarily fund the government while permanently defunding the Affordable Care Act. Conservatives in the room, according to Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, "went bonkers." As Washington moved closer to shutdown, and Boehner dug in behind his refusal to pass any continuing resolution that funds Obamacare, conservatives celebrated "Boehner 2.0" and closed ranks around their newly lionized speaker.
"It's easier to follow somebody who you know is willing to fight," said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, another member who refused to vote for Boehner in January. Labrador, who came to Congress in 2010 knowing Boehner's history as a troublemaker in the 1990s, said conservatives have frequently felt let down by the speaker's cautious approach. But with his stand against Obamacare, Labrador said, Boehner is suddenly revealing himself as "the leader we always wanted him to be."
Of course, conservatives have seen glimpses of this Boehner before. In advocating for Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget, for instance, or supporting the sequester cuts, Boehner has united his conference when tacking to the right. "Leadership has learned that when we are most conservative, we are most united," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, still another Boehner defector from earlier this year.
For now, then, conservatives are appeased and the conference is cohesive. (A smaller, more moderate faction is willing to pass a clean CR to open the government now, but it doesn't seem to have much sway.) With the shutdown beginning to bleed toward an even bigger battle—the debt ceiling, which must be raised by Oct. 17—the durability of this union will be severely tested. House Republicans across the ideological spectrum acknowledged this week that both battles will likely need to be resolved with one sweeping agreement. For that to happen, Boehner will have to offer some major concessions—starting with fully funding the president's health care law—that risk breaking up the brotherhood.
Moving forward, Huelskamp vows, his attitude toward leadership will hew to Ronald Reagan's signature phrase. With a grin, he says, "It will always be, 'Trust, but verify.' The speaker would have said the same thing when he was in our shoes."
The reality that Republicans have discovered is, they are more effective doing battle against the Democrats when they aren't simultaneously fighting amongst themselves. The comity may not last, but conservatives are certainly enjoying it while it does.
"Could we still screw things up as conservatives? Sure. Could he still screw things up as the speaker? Sure. That's just human nature," Mulvaney says. "But the point is, the relationship is getting stronger."