He and others are still angry about the deals that Boehner made with Obama and the Democratic-led Senate, notably the last-second compromise in August 2011 that helped set the clock ticking on the looming defense and budget sequestration cuts set to kick in next year.
And now, with talk in Congress about moving to avoid or suspend the sequester, more-senior members, such as Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, are publicly grousing that the only thing the nation may get out of the Budget Control Act is $2.4 trillion more in debt and no real reform or savings. On top of all this, lawmakers early next year will again have to decide whether to increase the debt ceiling by another $1 trillion or $2 trillion.
Boehner on Sunday described his role to National Journal as pushing “everyone to do what needs to be done in order to get the economy going again and to help save the American Dream for our kids and theirs.” But it’s not so much the newer members that he sees as the bigger internal challenge. Rather, he insisted, “the biggest challenge has been a dozen of our more-senior members who, whatever the leaders have wanted, it’s never been good enough. We don’t live in a perfect world, and we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. But, trust me, it’s not those elected in 2010. I’m not going to suggest that they’re all perfect, but by and large it’s not them.”
On the Democratic side of the aisle, some rank-and-file members complain that House Democrats under Pelosi are too often left out of negotiations between the White House and Republicans, and are viewed as a polarizing element to talks. At the same time, Democrats take some satisfaction in knowing that Boehner has had to turn to Pelosi for votes.
More immediately, though, Democrats are disappointed that they did not pick up more seats in the election, and some of that frustration is turning into criticism of Pelosi. Redistricting surely hamstrung the effort to close the 25-seat gap from the beginning. But one senior member said that House Democrats just seemed to have no clear message for voters, and some lawmakers question privately whether it’s time for a generational change at the top of the party.
House Democrats are already worried about 2014. Since the start of the 20th century, the party in the White House has almost always suffered congressional losses in the sixth year of a presidency. One senior Democrat noted that congressional Democrats more than held their own in fundraising with Republicans this election, but they came away with little to show for it.
How this tension might play out if Pelosi sticks around as minority leader next session remains to be seen; several members say that the caucus would tolerate Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who has toiled in Pelosi’s shadow, as her successor. Jockeying by ambitious members in anticipation of her eventual departure could start to affect party cohesiveness.
SIGNS OF MODERATION
Behind the scenes—unrelated to any efforts by Boehner or Pelosi—a number of more-moderate House members on both sides of the aisle are quietly reaching out to each other. They aren’t sure they will come up with their own bipartisan solutions to resolve the sequester and other fiscal issues. But they are giving it a shot. “It’s gonna require moderate Democrats and Republicans in the House, of which I’m one, to take leadership, to reach across the aisle to make sure that the solutions are bipartisan,” Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., told NJ.
Top Democratic and Republican leaders, however, remain far apart on how precisely to deal with the pressing fiscal issues. Boehner has made it clear he sees only a mini-deal possible during the lame-duck session—as a bridge to negotiating more comprehensively in the next Congress with the debt ceiling, the expiring Bush tax cuts, entitlement and tax reform, and the sequester.
Boehner continues, meanwhile, to play a game of mixed messaging. Even before the results were in on Tuesday night, the speaker wasted no time in laying down another marker. “With this vote,” he declared, “the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.” Less than 24 hours later, he was at the Capitol seeming to be offering Democrats a potential new area of compromise, saying, “We’re willing to accept new revenue under the right conditions”—namely, in return for Obama and congressional Democrats agreeing to reduce spending and reform entitlement programs. But this really wasn’t a change in the position that Republicans have been taking since before the election, calling for a one-year extension of the expiring tax rates and a still-vague overhaul of the tax code that could generate more revenue through growth.
“Mr. President, this is your moment,” Boehner went on to say. Left unsaid was that this is the speaker’s moment, as well.
This article appeared in print as "The Speaker’s Moment."
Reid Wilson and Michael Catalini contributed
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.