Can John Boehner Win?

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Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) answers reporters' questions during a brief news conference after the weekly House Republican Caucus meeting at the Capitol, July 31, 2013.
National Journal
Billy House Michael Catalini
Sept. 30, 2013, 6:23 p.m.

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.”

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