Why Boehner Can Thumb His Nose at the Right

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) pumps his fist after leaving a meeting of House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 16, 2013.
National Journal
Tim Alberta Billy House
Dec. 12, 2013, 6:53 a.m.

Tea-party con­ser­vat­ives are call­ing for John Boehner’s head, and some lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an com­ment­at­ors are already writ­ing his polit­ic­al ob­it­u­ary.

Ain’t gonna hap­pen.

Boehner thumbed his nose at the right-wing­ers this week, and there’s pretty much noth­ing they can do about it.

The real­ity is this: Paul Ry­an, not Boehner, will take the brunt of the tea-party and talk-ra­dio rage over the budget deal. And even if some Re­pub­lic­ans in the House wanted to dump Boehner from the speak­er­ship, they couldn’t.

Boehner pushed back against the Right on Wed­nes­day, call­ing op­pos­i­tion to the budget agree­ment from con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy groups “ri­dicu­lous.” Those same groups are in­censed over Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee Chair­man Steve Scal­ise’s de­cision to fire the group’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, Paul Tell­er, a pil­lar of Wash­ing­ton’s con­ser­vat­ive com­munity.

But simply put, there’s really noth­ing that con­ser­vat­ives — in­side or out­side of the Cap­it­ol — can do about it. The only House con­ser­vat­ives suf­fi­ciently gal­van­ized by Boehner’s re­marks and Tell­er’s fir­ing to re­volt against the speak­er are largely the same group who tried, and failed, to oust him back in Janu­ary.

Boehner’s open de­fi­ance of con­ser­vat­ive groups seek­ing to un­der­mine the budget deal is not the hall­mark of a speak­er pre­par­ing to sur­render his gavel. Rather, it’s the sign of a lead­er whose grip on his con­fer­ence has nev­er been firmer, and whose power is con­sol­id­ated.

Boehner did not back down on Thursday when asked about his cri­ti­cism of the out­side groups. “They have lost all cred­ib­il­ity,” Boehner said, not­ing that earli­er this week they op­posed the budget deal be­fore it was un­veiled.

Boehner ad­ded, seem­ingly for good meas­ure: “I’m as con­ser­vat­ive as any­body around this place.”

His stew­ard­ship of the House GOP dur­ing Oc­to­ber’s shut­down saga won him new­found re­spect among con­ser­vat­ives, who after the dust settled were quick to squash any talk of re­pla­cing the speak­er.

Rep. Raul Lab­rador, one of 12 House Re­pub­lic­ans to vote against Boehner’s reelec­tion back in Janu­ary, said re­cently that Boehner had fi­nally emerged as “the lead­er we al­ways wanted him to be.” And Rep. Marlin Stutz­man, the early fa­vor­ite to suc­ceed Scal­ise at the RSC, ad­ded, “The speak­er is stronger now with­in our con­fer­ence than he ever has been.”

Now, be­cause Ry­an took the lead craft­ing the budget deal with Sen­ate Demo­crats, Boehner has in­su­lated him­self from dir­ect cri­ti­cism of the ac­cord, even though he is able to push it, act­ively and even pa­ternally.

While some House Re­pub­lic­ans railed against the budget deal Wed­nes­day, not a single one men­tioned Boehner’s name. In­deed, it’s Ry­an — not Boehner — who is bear­ing the brunt of cri­ti­cism from his col­leagues, out­side groups, and con­ser­vat­ive talk ra­dio.

But that hasn’t stopped right-wing pun­dits from pil­ing on Boehner, claim­ing that his re­buke of con­ser­vat­ive groups on Wed­nes­day amoun­ted to a resig­na­tion of his speak­er­ship.

“The speak­er, in his ac­tions, has de­clared he will not seek the speak­er­ship again,” wrote Er­ick Er­ick­son, ed­it­or of Red­State.com.

“John Boehner, when he opened his mouth on Wed­nes­day to de­clare he was no longer in­ter­ested in seek­ing the speak­er­ship, did so by cast­ing his lot with the party, not the move­ment,” he ad­ded.

That’s prob­ably wish­ful think­ing, of course. Boehner’s of­fice last month told Na­tion­al Journ­al that he plans to seek reelec­tion in 2014, and as speak­er in the next Con­gress. And Er­ick­son, like oth­er con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics of Boehner, has a ves­ted in­terest in see­ing Boehner — and Scal­ise — re­placed with more con­ser­vat­ive law­makers who share the tea-party move­ment’s ideo­lo­gic­al agenda.

If Er­ick­son car­ried any sig­ni­fic­ant in­flu­ence over con­ser­vat­ives on Cap­it­ol Hill, Rep. Tom Price would be House speak­er right now, and Rep. Tom Graves would be the RSC chair­man, as he has ad­voc­ated in the past. Alas, they are not.

Graves, a lead­ing House con­ser­vat­ive, says he does not see an anti-Boehner back­lash emer­ging, at least in­tern­ally with­in the GOP con­fer­ence.

“Oh no ““ I don’t sense that what­so­ever,” Graves said Thursday, adding, “I don’t think you could have char­ac­ter­ized this last year, or the pre­vi­ous ses­sion, as ones where there’s been a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship between lead­er­ship and these out­side groups. I don’t sense this as new ter­rit­ory for any­body.”

Of course, there have been shaky times for Boehner, in­clud­ing when he was tar­geted by the ham-fis­ted coup at­tempt early this year. And there have been sev­er­al in­stances this year when Boehner has bucked the ma­jor­ity of his mem­bers after push­ing through le­gis­la­tion without their back­ing, lead­ing to some hard feel­ings.

But he has en­joyed the re­li­able back­ing of a co­ali­tion of Re­pub­lic­ans who, com­bined with large num­bers of House Demo­crats, are cap­able of passing vi­tal le­gis­la­tion. This co­ali­tion in­cludes at least 30 Re­pub­lic­ans who voted to end the shut­down, to reau­thor­ize the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act, and to grant fund­ing for Hur­ricane Sandy vic­tims.

But there are signs that the new budget agree­ment worked out by Ry­an with Sen. Patty Mur­ray will not have to go that far, be­cause it will likely en­joy the back­ing of a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans.

Still, Boehner is mov­ing to min­im­ize any mis­steps or in­tern­al GOP dis­sen­sion. Two seni­or House Re­pub­lic­an aides say one ex­ample is his de­term­in­a­tion to ad­journ the House for the year on Fri­day.

As one of the aides put it, “The speak­er simply does not think any­thing good can come about for Re­pub­lic­ans by stay­ing around any longer.”

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