John Boehner Had the Best Year in Washington

The much doubted speaker quelled an uprising, beat the outside groups, and emerged looking more reasonable (and powerful) than any other leader.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) answers reporters questions during his weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. When asked about the Republican Party's running against women, Boehner said, 'Some of our members just are not as sensitive as they ought to be.' 
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Dec. 31, 2013, midnight

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.

×