John Boehner spent 2013 methodically transforming himself from prey to predator, a Machiavellian makeover that belies the underrated political savvy of Washington’s favorite punching bag.
Boehner rang in the new year amid swirling rumors that an angry faction of conservative malcontents were orchestrating a coup d’état aimed at ousting him from the speakership and replacing him with someone friendlier to the tea party movement.
Fast-forward to December. Boehner not only endured the January uprising, but has earned the respect of those members who organized it. As a result, the conference is more unified than at any point in recent memory, and Boehner’s standing has never been stronger. This reconsolidation of power, witnessed by the speaker’s friends and foes alike, is the result of a well-executed plan that was hatched shortly after Boehner’s brush with political death in January.
Two things were apparent to Boehner by mid-afternoon on Jan. 3, 2013, the first day of the 113th Congress: His speakership would survive an attempt by a dozen House conservatives to overthrow him and those efforts would only grow larger, and better organized, if he didn’t do something to stop the bleeding from the internal wounds opened up during the 112th Congress.
Boehner needed to bridge the gap between his leadership team and the conference’s most ideologically inflexible members. To accomplish this, Boehner brilliantly enlisted the help of five of the House’s most respected conservatives: Reps. Paul Ryan, Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, Tom Price, and Jeb Hensarling.
These five lawmakers, who would soon become known as Boehner’s “Jedi Council,” worked closely with the speaker to devise a plan to unite the conference around a conservative strategy for the upcoming Congress, and hide the ideological cracks that had surfaced over the previous two years.
Their plan was unveiled in mid-January at the GOP conference retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Since dubbed “The Williamsburg Accord,” the agreement called for a re-ordering of legislative battles. Boehner wanted the House to approve a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, pushing back until summertime the battle over the nation’s borrowing authority. In exchange, the Jedis wanted three commitments from leadership: for the automatic spending cuts (known as sequestration) to go into effect March 1; for a subsequent six-month funding bill to be written at those lower spending levels; and for House Republicans to pass a budget in 2013 that would balance in 10 years.
The agreement was approved, much to the chagrin of some conservatives who didn’t trust Boehner to deliver on his end. “Conservatives are giving leadership a chance for a few months to see what direction we take,” Rep. Justin Amash said after the Williamsburg retreat. “I think the level of frustration has built up to the point where we hope there are positive outcomes out of the next months.”
Amash, who had helped organize the anti-Boehner mutiny one month earlier, added: “If not, I would not be surprised to see a larger rebellion.”
But that “larger rebellion” never arrived. Boehner held up his end of the deal to the pleasant surprise of some of his harshest skeptics who had predicted the Williamsburg deal’s imminent demise. “As cynical as I might be, I’ve been extraordinarily impressed thus far,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who two months earlier wouldn’t back Boehner’s reelection. “Right now the fiscal hawks are winning. “¦ We’ve got the debate on our turf right now. And I’ve got to give leadership credit for that.”
This was a common refrain among conservatives as the snow melted into springtime, and lawmakers began to realize that Boehner was, in fact, delivering on the promises he had made in Williamsburg. Jordan, a top conservative who had bumped heads with Boehner during the previous Congress, couldn’t stop gushing about his fellow Ohioan. “God bless the speaker,” Jordan said in April.
But beneath the surface something still was amiss. House Republicans were happy with the newfound unity of their conference but they were failing to effectively address the elephant in the chamber: Obamacare. Those tea party-aligned Republicans elected in 2010 had run their campaigns as a rebuke to President Obama’s health care law, yet once inside the Capitol they were impotent to dispose of it. There were repeated votes to repeal the law, of course, but Republicans saw them for what they were: token attempts to signal disapproval of the law, understanding they were doomed to fail in the Senate.
Conservative lawmakers, egged on during the August recess by Sen. Ted Cruz and allied outside groups, demanded something more. They wanted to deny government funding for Obamacare, and they craved a big, bloody “fight” in the process. They tied this conflict to Oct. 1, the date when Obamacare exchanges would open — and when Washington would run out of money without a new funding bill.
Boehner and his team warned against this strategy, and even devised a watered-down alternative that would feebly attempt to defund Obamacare while guarding against a potential government shutdown. “We should live to fight another day,” Boehner told his conference.
But after two-and-a-half years in the House majority, and dozens of failed attempts to get rid of Obamacare, some Republicans refused the speaker’s advice. “We’re always being told, ‘Let’s live to fight another day,’” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said in mid-September. “But are we ever going to fight?”
House conservatives delivered that message to Boehner by rejecting leadership’s plan. His response surprised them. On Sept. 28, two days before the government was set to run out of money, Boehner gathered his conference in the Capitol basement and informed them of his new plan: They would pass a bill that temporarily funds government and permanently defunds Obamacare.
“People went bonkers,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., no friend of leadership’s, said after the meeting.
Conservatives had the fight they’d been itching for. But they were going to lose — and badly. Boehner knew as much. But he couldn’t afford to be seen shaking his head from the hilltops as his soldiers were slaughtered below. So the speaker thrust himself into the trenches, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his members as they endured a shutdown-driven onslaught from the White House, the Senate, and the media. Boehner not only led his army into battle; he took a beating on the front lines.
His infantry ate it up. “It’s easier to follow somebody who you know is willing to fight,” Rep. Raul Labrador, another conservative who refused to vote for Boehner in January, said during the October fiscal crisis. With his stand against Obamacare, Labrador said, Boehner was suddenly revealing himself as “the leader we always wanted him to be.”
Freshman Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., another Boehner defector from January, added: “We’re all so proud of him right now.”
This newfound credibility among the House GOP’s insurgent wing gave Boehner the cover he needed on Oct. 16 when he announced, after all options had been exhausted, that House Republicans would have to surrender. They had “fought the good fight,” Boehner told his conference. But now, on the eve of the Treasury Department’s debt-limit deadline, the House would take up a Senate bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
Republicans — even those who hours later would vote against the bill — gave Boehner a standing ovation. The paradigm had shifted; Boehner could no longer suffice as the scapegoat for frustrated conservatives. And they knew it. “The speaker is stronger now within our conference than he ever has been,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said one week after that vote.
But Boehner wasn’t done. The fiscal cease-fire agreed to in October called for budget negotiations between House Republicans and Senate Democrats to see if a compromise could be reached to set spending levels and replace some sequester cuts. But those talks were all risk, no reward for Boehner. So he appointed Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman beloved by the Right, to lead the negotiations.
It was a win-win for Boehner. If the committee reached a deal, Ryan — not him — would be responsible for selling it to the conference and defending it from the outside groups. And if negotiations collapsed, Boehner would appease conservatives by defaulting to another short-term CR at sequester levels.
Of course, Ryan did reach a budget compromise. Some GOP lawmakers, and many of their affiliated outside groups, howled in disapproval. But Boehner, as foreseen, was insulated from the blowback.
As some key conservative lawmakers voiced support for the proposal, though, and it became clear that passage was imminent, Boehner unleashed. After several years of being battered by conservative outside groups — the same ones that agitated for a shutdown-inducing battle over Obamacare — he couldn’t resist the chance to stick a finger in their eye. “I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be,” Boehner said. “And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
It was equal parts dancing in the endzone and telling a rival team their star players had switched sides.
Hours later, the budget agreement passed the House on a lopsided 332-94 vote, with 169 Republicans supporting it and only 62 opposed. Boehner shook hands, patted backs, and strolled off the House floor smiling, knowing this Christmas would be merrier than the last.