How John Boehner Is Playing Washington

The speaker will do just enough to make legislative action look likely. But in an election year, his members should get used to the idea that there will be no votes on the big issues.

US House Speaker John Boehner gestures before President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 28, 2014 at the US Capitol in Washington. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
March 2, 2014, 9:07 a.m.

There were no fire­works when John Boehner stood be­fore Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers at their re­treat in rur­al Mary­land and un­veiled the House GOP’s “prin­ciples” for im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Even as the speak­er out­lined policies in­tol­er­able to hawk­ish con­ser­vat­ives, such as provid­ing cit­izen­ship to un­doc­u­mented chil­dren, there was, amaz­ingly, no ugly dis­sent in­side the Hy­att con­fer­ence cen­ter.

There’s a simple reas­on why: Most mem­bers real­ized that Boehner was present­ing broad ideas to be dis­cussed, not spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als to be voted on.

“I thought the prin­ciples were vague enough that most people could agree with them,” Rep. Raul Lab­rador said after the re­treat.

That was the idea.

At the be­gin­ning of the year, in­ter­views with dozens of law­makers and aides re­vealed a stra­tegic di­cho­tomy form­ing with­in the House GOP. Many con­ser­vat­ives craved a “bold” vot­ing sched­ule in 2014 that would draw sharp policy con­trasts on a host of is­sues. Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, on the oth­er hand, saw such ag­gres­sion as coun­ter­pro­duct­ive in an elec­tion year and pre­ferred to play it safe by pound­ing the is­sues of Obama­care, gov­ern­ment over­sight, the eco­nomy, and op­por­tun­ity for middle-class Amer­ic­ans.

What has emerged is something of a safe middle ground. Boehner said Thursday that Re­pub­lic­ans “will not shy away from” ad­van­cing ma­jor le­gis­la­tion this year. But the pace of that ad­vance will be slow. In­deed, as GOP lead­er­ship care­fully nav­ig­ates an elec­tion year that ap­pears prom­ising for the party, Boehner is al­low­ing con­ser­vat­ive policy solu­tions to emerge from the con­fer­ence — but they are meant to eli­cit pos­it­ive head­lines and score polit­ic­al points, not to ex­ped­ite votes.

Take im­mig­ra­tion. In the ab­stract, plenty of Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port leg­al status for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants (al­beit only after sev­er­al trig­gers, such as bor­der se­cur­ity and em­ploy­ment veri­fic­a­tion, are in place.) Still, they say 2014 isn’t ripe for such an over­haul, cit­ing elec­tion-year polit­ics and a be­lief that Pres­id­ent Obama is un­will­ing to en­force im­mig­ra­tion laws. Boehner, know­ing the reti­cence of his mem­bers yet un­der­stand­ing the ne­ces­sity of ap­pear­ing pro­act­ive on im­mig­ra­tion, felt he had to act.

So the speak­er re­leased a neb­u­lous out­line of prin­ciples. Re­pub­lic­ans rolled their eyes, sens­ing that sig­ni­fic­ant le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion was un­likely, but the me­dia went crazy, splash­ing front-page head­lines her­ald­ing the House GOP’s em­brace of leg­al­iz­a­tion for the un­doc­u­mented. And one week later, after law­makers lodged ob­lig­at­ory con­cerns and re­port­ers wrote glow­ing re­views, Boehner du­ti­fully ac­know­ledged that im­mig­ra­tion re­form prob­ably won’t hap­pen this year.

“This is an im­port­ant is­sue in our coun­try,” Boehner said on Feb. 6. “It’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with.”

The speak­er was dis­cuss­ing im­mig­ra­tion, but he could have been ref­er­en­cing any num­ber of policies his GOP mem­bers want to bring to a vote — tax re­form, health care, pri­vacy, and wel­fare re­form among them. Re­pub­lic­ans want ac­tion, but it’s be­com­ing clear that most of these will share im­mig­ra­tion’s fate: Prin­ciples will be shared and a dis­cus­sion will be had, but a vote will not.

Tax re­form is the latest ex­ample. Rep. Dave Camp, chair­man of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, made a splash last week by in­tro­du­cing a long-awaited over­haul of the tax code. Many con­ser­vat­ives have eagerly an­ti­cip­ated Camp’s pro­pos­al for three years, and are now agit­at­ing for a vote. “If this is a really power­ful doc­u­ment that can rally a bunch of sup­port in the party, then what’s to stop us from hav­ing a vote in the House?” Rep. Mick Mul­vaney of South Car­o­lina said of Camp’s tax plan.

Boehner’s re­sponse when asked about Camp’s plan on Wed­nes­day: “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Lead­er­ship sees the de­tails of this pro­pos­al, such as elim­in­at­ing pop­u­lar de­duc­tions, as polit­ic­ally per­il­ous. But they also know how en­thu­si­ast­ic some mem­bers are about tax re­form. So rather than rankle con­ser­vat­ives by suf­foc­at­ing the plan al­to­geth­er, or ir­rit­ate the busi­ness com­munity by bring­ing a risky pro­pos­al to the House floor, Boehner’s team is con­tent to have Camp to un­veil his plan — al­low­ing for a broad mes­saging cam­paign but not a spe­cif­ic vote.

This head-fak­ing has provided GOP lead­er­ship with a blue­print for 2014. Now, with im­mig­ra­tion and tax re­form es­sen­tially taken off the table, and few­er than 75 le­gis­lat­ive days left be­fore midterm elec­tions, Boehner’s team will have to grapple with but a few more po­ten­tially trouble­some policy pushes.

Pri­vacy le­gis­la­tion, if it’s a liber­tari­an-backed bill with teeth, is un­likely to reach the floor.

Same goes for wel­fare re­form. A group of con­ser­vat­ives, led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have worked with the Her­it­age Found­a­tion on a pro­pos­al to roll back wel­fare spend­ing to pre-re­ces­sion levels and add work re­quire­ments to the food-stamp pro­gram. But a vote on this plan is un­likely. Tinker­ing with the so­cial safety net is al­ways haz­ard­ous, and, as with oth­er bold pro­pos­als, lead­er­ship won’t risk an elec­tion-year back­lash by vot­ing on something that stands no chance of clear­ing the Sen­ate.

The one ma­jor is­sue that Boehner’s strategy won’t ap­ply to is Obama­care. Con­ser­vat­ives have de­man­ded ac­tion — and were prom­ised votes — on an al­tern­at­ive to the Af­ford­able Care Act. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor earned ap­plause in Cam­bridge when he guar­an­teed an Obama­care re­place­ment plan, and is be­gin­ning to meet with col­leagues to piece something to­geth­er. Can­tor is widely ex­pec­ted to de­liv­er.

Still, as Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted in Janu­ary, the House Re­pub­lic­an health care plan is likely to be a med­ley of poll-tested pro­pos­als slapped to­geth­er — not one of the com­pre­hens­ive al­tern­at­ive plans that con­ser­vat­ives have been boost­ing.

For con­ser­vat­ives who de­man­ded an ag­gress­ive, wide-ran­ging le­gis­lat­ive agenda in 2014, wind­ing up with one vote on a watered-down health care bill might not suf­fice. “In­stead of talk­ing, we could ac­tu­ally act — and we could have a real im­pact,” said Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, a fre­quent crit­ic of lead­er­ship. “It’s easy to blame Harry Re­id and the pres­id­ent for everything, but we’re miss­ing a lot of op­por­tun­it­ies. Stand­ing back and wait­ing is not go­ing to win elec­tions.”

Still, after ini­tially de­cry­ing a play-it-safe strategy, oth­er con­ser­vat­ives now sound com­fort­able with the ap­proach. “When you put a bill out there,” said Rep. John Flem­ing of Louisi­ana, “it has a lot of de­tails that can de­tract from the over­all concept.”

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