By Richard E. Cohen, CQ Staff
At the beginning of this year, newly elected House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) accepted a large gavel from Democrat Nancy Pelosi (CA) and laid out a vision for how things would be different under his leadership. He talked about transparency and open debate, about the virtues of “good legislating” over “fast legislating” and about “the people’s House” being a forum for the battle of ideas.
At year’s end, Boehner found himself conducting a brief one-way conference call with House Republicans — arranged in such a way that only he could speak — to talk about how the House would pass a bill that they had all vehemently rebelled against earlier in the week. And on Friday, the measure to extend a payroll-tax cut for two months (H.R. 3765) reached a virtually empty House chamber and passed in a truncated procedure that circumvented customary debate.
The distance between his vision for the House as he took the gavel in January and the reality that he encountered at year’s end was, in one sense, a measure of the difficulty Boehner faced in meeting his own high standards for House operations, especially with a raucous and divided Republican rank-and-file.
But the year-end setback also leaves both allies and adversaries assessing how much Boehner’s political capital has shrunk from his initial high hopes. As he prepares for another bruising year in 2012, with more tough fights ahead and downsized expectations, he will be tested to show that he can deliver results in an even more challenging environment.
As he painfully witnessed in the payroll-tax debate, Boehner confronts an invigorated president battling for re-election and Democrats fighting to keep Senate control. Meanwhile, members of the House’s huge freshman Republican class will determine how much of a campaign boost Boehner can provide, given his modest first-year results and the record-low public approval for Congress.
As was the case during much of 2011, in the divided GOP conference, Boehner will be challenged by the conservative cadre unhappy with his accommodating style and limited results. And some who are more moderate may be embarrassed to associate themselves with this recent performance.
For now, Boehner does not appear to face a leadership challenge from within his own party. Despite persistent speculation among staffers and in the media that Majority Leader Eric Cantor is waiting for the right moment to oust him, Boehner allies say they see no evidence that the Virginian might mount a challenge or that he could prevail.
Moreover, any other Republican holding the gavel in this Congress — and probably beyond — would almost certainly face many of the unruly party divisions and constant clashes that have consumed Boehner.
Still, Boehner narrowly won as party leader in 2006. And the huge influx of new Republicans since then means that half of the 242 GOP members did not participate in that contest; in other words, many have little loyalty to Boehner. Although he is confident of their support, few members appear to have a close personal relationship with him. And House Republicans historically have shown a greater proclivity than Democrats to remove their party leaders.
Pressure from the Right
Despite his troubles in the past week, Boehner this year has demonstrated some strength within the Republican Conference and a dexterity for handling certain issues. Even on the payroll bill, where his efforts collapsed in the face of Democratic opposition the past week, the House initially passed the bill on Dec. 13 with only 14 Republicans opposed. That was a far better showing than on the 2011 spending bill (H.R. 1473) and the debt-ceiling increase (S. 365) earlier this year where the opposition of 59 and 66 Republicans, respectively, forced Boehner to rely on Democratic support on the final votes for each measure.
A seasoned lawmaker, Boehner has also benefited from legislative experience, including his enactment of major legislation during five years as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. In an interview this week, he laid out an ambitious agenda, laughing at the description by some that the election year will entail a light legislative lineup.
In addition to continuing deficit-reduction efforts and pressure to revise the threatened sequester a year from now of Pentagon and domestic programs, which he calls “big, bad and ugly,” the Speaker hopes to move major legislation on energy production and infrastructure spending, And he said that the House will consider an overhaul of the tax code this year. “Congress can’t whistle past the graveyard,” he said. “There are plenty of problems out there.”
The payroll bill episode, however, has demonstrated Boehner’s weakened hand. Conservative discontent remains perhaps his biggest threat. It has erupted in the constant challenges that he has faced from leaders of the House’s Republican Study Committee as well as individual members who are not shy about expressing themselves.
First-term Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) harshly critiqued the abandonment of conservative principles when he complained Thursday about Boehner’s compromise on the payroll bill.
“We were sent here with a clear set of instructions from the American people to put an end to business as usual in Washington, yet here we are being asked to sign off on yet another gimmick,” he said in a statement after Thursday’s conference call. “No wonder the American people are left with a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to Congress.”
After next year’s election results for the 89 freshmen, the survivors are likely to feel a greater opportunity to chart their own course — in committee work, with House factions or on their own. That could increase Boehner’s management challenge.
Working with the Senate
Meanwhile, the Speaker will have to learn to read the Senate and its leadership as well as his own chamber. Clearly there are cracks in his vaunted alliance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Not only did he misread McConnell’s willingness to protect Boehner’s interests over Senate demands, but McConnell exposed to Boehner’s membership that the Speaker had private dealings with Senate leaders. House conservatives complained that this happened at their expense.
Boehner allies have made no secret in recent days of their anger at the Senate and its limited performance. “We have to call it for what it is. The Senate is a circus, and we are tired of it,” said Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, a fellow Ohioan who is close to Boehner.
“The Senate has become almost dysfunctional. It has to stop running this way,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK). The hostility of House Republicans made them even more surprised by and disdainful of the success of the scaled-back alternative put forth by Reid and McConnell.
Through it all, the often laid-back Boehner tried to maintain his self-confidence, while conceding his poor performance in this week’s nightmare. “Sometimes, it’s hard to do the politically difficult thing,” he said, in reviewing his handling of the payroll bill.
“It may not have been, politically, the smartest thing in the world,” Boehner added late Thursday. “But let me tell you what, I think our members waged a good fight.”
In the House chamber on Friday, though, it looked more like a surrender than a fight. Only one member was present on the GOP side: Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri. As she awaited the opening gavel, she quietly passed the time in chit-chat with hovering GOP aides.
When Boehner gaveled the session to order after the Prayer and Pledge, he recognized Emerson, who cited brief parliamentary business and did not prompt any discussion of the merits of the bill.
Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was accommodating to the majority and kept his comments brief — probably less than a minute — and positive. In the end, it was the Democrats who were more animated, giving one another hearty handshakes and seasons greetings. GOP members and staff quietly walked away.