With a Little ‘Fight,’ Boehner Strengthens His Position

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media during at his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill April 18, 2013 in Washington DC. Speaker Boehner briefly spoke about the Boston Marathon bombing and current issues before the House of Representatives. 
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Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Oct. 23, 2013, 4:26 p.m.

For Speak­er John Boehner, a little bit of fight has gone a long way.

The biggest win­ner of the fall fisc­al crisis, polit­ic­ally speak­ing, may not be Pres­id­ent Obama or Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. Rather, an ar­gu­ment can be made that it is Boehner, the much-ma­ligned GOP lead­er who helped ush­er in a gov­ern­ment shut­down that weakened the Re­pub­lic­an brand yet strengthened his stature among a frac­tured House ma­jor­ity.

Con­sider this: For months, in ap­proach­ing the twin crises of a gov­ern­ment shut­down and po­ten­tial debt de­fault, con­ser­vat­ives in Boehner’s con­fer­ence had been adam­ant about their ex­pect­a­tions. To fund gov­ern­ment, they wanted to de­fund or delay im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act. To in­crease the debt lim­it, they wanted en­ti­tle­ment re­forms con­sist­ent with the so-called Boehner Rule that re­quires $1 in cuts or sav­ings for every $1 in new debt. Above all, they wanted Boehner to abide by the in­form­al “Hastert Rule,” which says any bill must have ma­jor­ity GOP sup­port to reach the House floor.

It didn’t work out that way. In fact, GOP lead­er­ship ul­ti­mately brought a bill to the House floor last week that sat­is­fied none of those cri­ter­ia. It fun­ded the gov­ern­ment for three months without dent­ing Obama­care; raised the debt ceil­ing through mid-Feb­ru­ary without ex­tract­ing cuts; and it passed with only 87 of 232 House Re­pub­lic­ans vot­ing for it.

But Boehner isn’t be­ing threatened with a coup, nor is he hold­ing onto his speak­er­ship for dear life. Rather, in the words of con­ser­vat­ive Rep. Marlin Stuz­man, R-Ind., “The speak­er is stronger now with­in our con­fer­ence than he ever has been.”

Don’t be­lieve Stutz­man? Con­sider the re­ac­tion on Oct. 16 when Boehner an­nounced to his con­fer­ence that he would bring the Sen­ate-passed bill to the House floor. Hun­dreds of House Re­pub­lic­ans — in­clud­ing many who ul­ti­mately voted against it — stood and de­livered a stand­ing ova­tion in re­cog­ni­tion of Boehner’s ef­forts dur­ing the shut­down saga.

“I’m really im­pressed with how he handled things,” Stutz­man said Wed­nes­day, one week after the fi­nal House vote. “He’s got a tough job, and through the dif­fi­culties of the past sev­er­al weeks he came out stronger.”

Oth­er con­ser­vat­ive law­makers agreed, and at­trib­uted Boehner’s heightened stature among House Re­pub­lic­ans to his will­ing­ness to fi­nally lead them in­to battle.

“We had al­ways said to him, as con­ser­vat­ives, ‘Just fight. Fight for us. Fight for what we be­lieve in, and we’ll be there,’ ” said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., whose plan to de­fund and delay Obama­care for one year be­came the blue­print for Boehner’s lead­er­ship team.

It’s the word of choice among House con­ser­vat­ives — fight — to de­scribe their mis­sion in Con­gress. They be­lieve they were sent to Wash­ing­ton to fight against Pres­id­ent Obama, against Sen­ate Demo­crats, and per­haps most ur­gently, against the health care plan rammed through Con­gress in March 2010. But in Boehner, some Re­pub­lic­ans have long seen the re­luct­ant gen­er­al, al­ways cau­tiously eval­u­at­ing the polit­ic­al ter­rain be­fore con­clud­ing it’s not con­du­cive to a GOP of­fens­ive.

“We live to fight an­oth­er day,” Boehner would re­as­sure them.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans doubted such a day would ever come. They were proven wrong on Sept. 18, when a re­luct­ant Boehner stood be­fore his Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence and out­lined a gov­ern­ment fund­ing pro­pos­al. A week after con­ser­vat­ives had re­jec­ted a watered-down meas­ure from Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, Boehner in­formed them of a new plan: They would pass a bill that tem­por­ar­ily funds gov­ern­ment and per­man­ently de­funds Obama­care. In es­sence, Boehner told his troops: Pre­pare for battle.

“People went bonkers,” Rep. Matt Sal­mon, R-Ar­iz., said after the meet­ing.

In the en­su­ing weeks, Boehner’s lead­er­ship team cycled through mul­tiple it­er­a­tions of this anti-Obama­care ef­fort, send­ing new bills to the Sen­ate each time the up­per cham­ber re­jec­ted one. It be­came an ex­haust­ing ex­er­cise, but for the speak­er, a ne­ces­sary one. This wasn’t the fight Boehner pre­ferred, ac­cord­ing to aides and law­makers fa­mil­i­ar with his de­lib­er­a­tions. But now, hav­ing led his army in­to a seem­ingly un­winnable war, Boehner was de­term­ined to lead the charge and fight to the end.

Sens­ing the au­then­ti­city of this com­mit­ment, once-skep­tic­al con­ser­vat­ives ral­lied be­hind Boehner. “It’s easi­er to fol­low some­body who you know is will­ing to fight,” Rep. Raul Lab­rador, R-Idaho, said sev­er­al days in­to the gov­ern­ment shut­down. Lab­rador had long been crit­ic­al of Boehner, and had voted against his reelec­tion as speak­er back in Janu­ary. But with his stand against Obama­care, Lab­rador said, Boehner was sud­denly re­veal­ing him­self as “the lead­er we al­ways wanted him to be.”

This new­found sup­port for the speak­er united House Re­pub­lic­ans, and laid to rest any ques­tions about Boehner’s job se­cur­ity, even after it be­came ob­vi­ous that he would be forced to sur­render the fight.

On Oct. 16, one day be­fore the Treas­ury De­part­ment’s dead­line to raise the debt ceil­ing — and one day after a last-ditch pro­pos­al failed to gain suf­fi­cient Re­pub­lic­an sup­port — Boehner gathered his con­fer­ence in the Cap­it­ol base­ment. There, he made of­fi­cial what they already knew: All op­tions had been ex­hausted. They had “fought the good fight,” he told them. But with the debt lim­it dead­line loom­ing, they now had no choice but to vote on the Sen­ate-passed pro­pos­al.

House Re­pub­lic­ans stood and ap­plauded the speak­er.

Sal­mon, who has nev­er hes­it­ated to jab Boehner, voted against fi­nal pas­sage. But he proudly par­ti­cip­ated in the stand­ing ova­tion. “We haven’t seen this kind of unity in three years, and part of it is in­cred­ible lead­er­ship. The speak­er did a great job of lead­ing through this crisis,” he said. “You know me, I’m a big crit­ic. But you’ve got to give cred­it where cred­it’s due. He did a great job.”

Con­ser­vat­ives wer­en’t ap­plaud­ing the end res­ult; they were cel­eb­rat­ing Boehner. For the first time, rank-and-file House Re­pub­lic­ans saw their lead­er­ship not just sanc­tion­ing a fight, but stand­ing side-by-side with their sol­diers on the front lines.

“We were fight­ing for pretty ba­sic prin­ciples. We were fight­ing for those prin­ciples for a sus­tained peri­od of time,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a former chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee. “And here was the speak­er, right in the middle of that de­bate, fight­ing with us. It didn’t work out ex­actly the way we wanted. But we were united in stand­ing up for those prin­ciples…. That’s what people ap­pre­ci­ate about the speak­er.”

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