For Speaker John Boehner, a little bit of fight has gone a long way.
The biggest winner of the fall fiscal crisis, politically speaking, may not be President Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Rather, an argument can be made that it is Boehner, the much-maligned GOP leader who helped usher in a government shutdown that weakened the Republican brand yet strengthened his stature among a fractured House majority.
Consider this: For months, in approaching the twin crises of a government shutdown and potential debt default, conservatives in Boehner's conference had been adamant about their expectations. To fund government, they wanted to defund or delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act. To increase the debt limit, they wanted entitlement reforms consistent with the so-called Boehner Rule that requires $1 in cuts or savings for every $1 in new debt. Above all, they wanted Boehner to abide by the informal "Hastert Rule," which says any bill must have majority GOP support to reach the House floor.
It didn't work out that way. In fact, GOP leadership ultimately brought a bill to the House floor last week that satisfied none of those criteria. It funded the government for three months without denting Obamacare; raised the debt ceiling through mid-February without extracting cuts; and it passed with only 87 of 232 House Republicans voting for it.
But Boehner isn't being threatened with a coup, nor is he holding onto his speakership for dear life. Rather, in the words of conservative Rep. Marlin Stuzman, R-Ind., "The speaker is stronger now within our conference than he ever has been."
Don't believe Stutzman? Consider the reaction on Oct. 16 when Boehner announced to his conference that he would bring the Senate-passed bill to the House floor. Hundreds of House Republicans — including many who ultimately voted against it — stood and delivered a standing ovation in recognition of Boehner's efforts during the shutdown saga.
"I'm really impressed with how he handled things," Stutzman said Wednesday, one week after the final House vote. "He's got a tough job, and through the difficulties of the past several weeks he came out stronger."
Other conservative lawmakers agreed, and attributed Boehner's heightened stature among House Republicans to his willingness to finally lead them into battle.
"We had always said to him, as conservatives, 'Just fight. Fight for us. Fight for what we believe in, and we'll be there,' " said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., whose plan to defund and delay Obamacare for one year became the blueprint for Boehner's leadership team.
It's the word of choice among House conservatives — fight — to describe their mission in Congress. They believe they were sent to Washington to fight against President Obama, against Senate Democrats, and perhaps most urgently, against the health care plan rammed through Congress in March 2010. But in Boehner, some Republicans have long seen the reluctant general, always cautiously evaluating the political terrain before concluding it's not conducive to a GOP offensive.
"We live to fight another day," Boehner would reassure them.
Some Republicans doubted such a day would ever come. They were proven wrong on Sept. 18, when a reluctant Boehner stood before his Republican Conference and outlined a government funding proposal. A week after conservatives had rejected a watered-down measure from Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Boehner informed them of a new plan: They would pass a bill that temporarily funds government and permanently defunds Obamacare. In essence, Boehner told his troops: Prepare for battle.
"People went bonkers," Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said after the meeting.
In the ensuing weeks, Boehner's leadership team cycled through multiple iterations of this anti-Obamacare effort, sending new bills to the Senate each time the upper chamber rejected one. It became an exhausting exercise, but for the speaker, a necessary one. This wasn't the fight Boehner preferred, according to aides and lawmakers familiar with his deliberations. But now, having led his army into a seemingly unwinnable war, Boehner was determined to lead the charge and fight to the end.
Sensing the authenticity of this commitment, once-skeptical conservatives rallied behind Boehner. "It's easier to follow somebody who you know is willing to fight," Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said several days into the government shutdown. Labrador had long been critical of Boehner, and had voted against his reelection as speaker back in January. But with his stand against Obamacare, Labrador said, Boehner was suddenly revealing himself as "the leader we always wanted him to be."
This newfound support for the speaker united House Republicans, and laid to rest any questions about Boehner's job security, even after it became obvious that he would be forced to surrender the fight.
On Oct. 16, one day before the Treasury Department's deadline to raise the debt ceiling — and one day after a last-ditch proposal failed to gain sufficient Republican support — Boehner gathered his conference in the Capitol basement. There, he made official what they already knew: All options had been exhausted. They had "fought the good fight," he told them. But with the debt limit deadline looming, they now had no choice but to vote on the Senate-passed proposal.
House Republicans stood and applauded the speaker.
Salmon, who has never hesitated to jab Boehner, voted against final passage. But he proudly participated in the standing ovation. "We haven't seen this kind of unity in three years, and part of it is incredible leadership. The speaker did a great job of leading through this crisis," he said. "You know me, I'm a big critic. But you've got to give credit where credit's due. He did a great job."
Conservatives weren't applauding the end result; they were celebrating Boehner. For the first time, rank-and-file House Republicans saw their leadership not just sanctioning a fight, but standing side-by-side with their soldiers on the front lines.
"We were fighting for pretty basic principles. We were fighting for those principles for a sustained period of time," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee. "And here was the speaker, right in the middle of that debate, fighting with us. It didn't work out exactly the way we wanted. But we were united in standing up for those principles.... That's what people appreciate about the speaker."