Speaker John Boehner has been a pivotal player in a seemingly no-win game.
With a deal to avert a government shutdown subject to a series of volleys between the House and the Senate as the midnight Monday deadline neared, the Ohio Republican’s reputation and his place in history were called into question.
“Act like the speaker of the House and not a speaker of the Republicans,” urged Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., during a news conference Monday, a characterization of Boehner’s approach she suggested was not the way former Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill would have handled things.
In the House, some GOP centrists like Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., were publicly suggesting it was time for Boehner to do what he believes. That would have been, according to Dent, for Boehner to set aside demands of hard-liners in his conference in favor of a stopgap spending bill without the anti-Obamacare provisions that President Obama and the Senate were sure to reject.
But a move like that is risky in today’s political environment.
“He’d win the approval of history and pundits if he had chosen to break with the hard-liners, but that would come at the cost of his position, for the hard-liners would not vote for him again,” suggested Brooks Simpson, a historian at Arizona State University.
“I suspect he likes being speaker in name too much to act as speaker in fact…. He’s no Henry Clay or Sam Rayburn,” Simpson said.
Political-science professor Paul Brace of Rice University says Boehner will be remembered as a speaker forced to confront hard choices, no matter what their outcome in coming days.
“Formally powerful but practically neutered, an object of scorn among GOP hard-liners and the traditional “˜whipping boy’ of his partisan opposition, there are few ways forward that are rosy for the speaker,” Brace said. “He will likely be viewed as culpable for a shutdown, but a symbol of appeasement if no shutdown.”
“While immediate consequences will likely emanate from his choices, time will tell how history unpacks his legacy as he weighs his rock-and-hard-place options,” he added.
Many House Republicans, particularly conservatives, remain suspicious of Boehner as someone too eager to cut deals with Obama and Democrats.
It’s a sentiment that’s led him to walk a tightrope, and caused some tense days before his reelection as speaker by a bare majority in January. Just two years earlier, Boehner won all GOP votes in his first election.
On the other hand, any would-be successors from the House’s conservative wing would themselves have to worry about keeping moderates in the conference happy, at the risk of losing support.
But one House conservative says he’s come to sympathize with Boehner for being such a target of hard-liners. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said its really unfair not to give the speaker some credit for having to do battle not only with Democrats in the Senate and a Democratic president, but the media, as well.
“The reality is the engineering here does not all add up to our favor,” said Franks, who added that he thinks Boehner has been able “to make lemonade out of this much more than some give him credit for.”
Boehner is also a favorite punching bag for Senate Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., regularly says he feels sorry for the speaker. Anyone who knows Boehner, Schumer says, knows he’s not as extreme as the tea-party wing of his caucus.
“Now, the funny thing is, Speaker Boehner knows he won’t succeed but the hard Right is demanding a pound of flesh to show how serious they are, how much they hate Obamacare,” Schumer said. “By going along with the hard Right, Speaker Boehner is like the ancient Mayans, making a sacrificial offering to the right-wing gods by refusing to accept a clean CR.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has recently taken to calling House Republicans “anarchists,” used school-yard imagery to describe the conservative wing of the House GOP.
“With a bully, you cannot let them slap you around, because they slap you around today, if they slap you five or six times, tomorrow it’s seven or eight times,” Reid said.
As for the Senate, Reid said, “we are not going to be bullied. We have done everything we can, and we’ve done it very reasonably.”