An inspirational prebattle speech? A jittery plea for help? Speaker John Boehner may not have conjured up Braveheart on Wednesday for fellow House Republicans who took part in a private postelection conference call. But the Ohioan did try to rally the troops by exhorting, “When we’re unified, we’re at our strongest. Divided, we fail.”
Yet, within the hour, Boehner was out in public delivering a less combative and more conciliatory message on the need to find common ground with Democrats to avert the looming “fiscal cliff.” That prospect refers to the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the triggering of military and other sequester spending cuts early next year that could wreak havoc on the fragile economic recovery. Reading a statement to reporters at the Capitol, Boehner said, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans…. Let’s rise above the dysfunction, and do the right thing together for our country in a bipartisan way.”
Such is the bipolar House leadership course that Boehner is forced to set, even before his second term as the leader of the House Republican majority formally gets under way in January.
Tuesday’s elections will keep Boehner’s party solidly in control of the House in the 113th Congress, although with fewer seats, even as President Obama was reelected and Democrats gained a slightly bigger Senate majority. Taken together, the election results seem to add up to more gridlock. Indeed, political lines could become even more hardened than they were in the 112th Congress.
This is the dilemma facing Boehner, who with Mitt Romney’s loss remains the GOP’s point man in the Washington battles ahead over spending reductions and taxes. His success as speaker in the next session (as well as in the upcoming lame duck) may well depend as much on his finding common ground with the rowdiest and most conservative of his own rank-and-file members as it does in his reaching compromise with Obama and congressional Democrats.
Whether it will be Nancy Pelosi or someone else leading the Democratic opposition in January, they, too, could come to be judged on how well they rein in their members who sit furthest to the left in what will now be an even more liberal caucus. (In the election’s aftermath, the San Francisco lawmaker and former speaker was keeping mum on whether she will seek to remain the top House Democrat after another election that leaves her party in the minority, although many colleagues think she will. Democratic Caucus leadership elections are scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving.)
But for both Republican and Democratic leaders, the key to success could be convincing their hard-liners—in the face of a national fiscal crisis—to focus on more definable policy achievements instead of obstinately refusing to consider anything short of their ideals, and therefore do nothing. Will they come to understand incrementalism? Will they come to understand that to get to point Z, they first might have to settle for X?
“The election certainly was not a mandate to either of them to be rigidly ideological on the left or on the right,” says James Thurber, a professor of government and the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. He says that it’s much more important for Boehner, as the leader of the majority, to find some way—to do some leading—to marshal the support of those on his right.
THUNDER ON THE RIGHT
One route to conciliation may be for Boehner to convince conservatives that their very majority ultimately could depend on a less-rigid approach, and that being shut out in all 21 House races in New England on Tuesday was one sign of the penalty their party is already paying.
But it will not be an easy sell. Most of the largely conservative 87-member Republican class of 2010 will be returning in January, complemented by another big class of GOP frosh, many of them conservatives.
One current freshman, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said he and some of his colleagues are in no mood to hear Boehner or other top GOP House leaders continue to argue how important it is for them to steer clear of any budget brinkmanship, or fear public hostility from threats of government shutdowns, if they stand up for spending cuts or against tax increases in any deal ahead.
That’s been the gist of the cautious argument repeatedly made by Boehner these past two years, according to that member, in the context that freshmen should not do things to jeopardize their party’s chances of winning the White House in 2012. The argument Boehner typically made was that once a Republican won the presidency, then congressional Republicans could really push through the spending cuts and other changes to Washington they want.
“But Romney didn’t win,” said the member. And take a look at the states the candidate did carry, he said: “I don’t see that Romney carried any of those where our leaders are from.” He was referring to Boehner’s home state of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s California—which all ended up in the Obama column. In fact, the member said, those three leaders weren’t even able to deliver in the three Senate races in their respective states, either. “So, we’re not impressed so much with their political strategy,” the lawmaker said.
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 contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.