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Boehner in Charge

How the House speaker rallied his restive troops.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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After the reelection of President Obama, House speaker John Boehner was disappointed, dispirited, and wary of a new round of clashes with the president. House Republicans had planned a fresh effort to repeal Obamacare, but, he told NBC News, “the election changes that.” He negotiated with Obama to raise taxes and spending by $1 trillion each before backing off. And with the Bush tax cuts about to expire and plunge the nation over a “fiscal cliff,” Boehner endorsed a deal to limit higher tax rates to those making more than $400,000.

Gage Skidmore

Gage Skidmore

In January, he didn’t get the usual unanimous support from his party in his reelection as speaker. Three Republicans voted for Majority Leader Eric Cantor and two for Allen West of Florida (who’d just lost his seat). Congressmen Raúl Labrador of Idaho, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Justin Amash of Michigan each got a vote, as did ex-comptroller general David Walker. Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas voted present, and Labrador and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina didn’t vote. For Boehner, this was humiliating.

His ability to corral Republican votes was in doubt. He had lost 66 GOP members on raising the debt limit in 2011. But the vote on the “fiscal cliff” in late December was worse: 151 of the 233 Republicans, including Cantor and House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, voted against the Boehner-blessed deal. This raised doubts about his future as speaker.

Now all that has changed. Republicans are united behind him. When the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the stronghold of House conservatives, met last week, Stockman was among those who rose to praise Boehner. And Mulvaney had nothing but kind words for the speaker. “I have been very pleased with his leadership since January,” Mulvaney told me. “I have no complaints.”

The votes since Labor Day on continuing resolutions (CRs) to block Obamacare while continuing government spending reflect the wave of unity behind Boehner. On defunding Obamacare only Scott Rigell of Virginia voted no. On delaying the health care law’s implementation, Republicans were unanimous. On delaying the individual mandate and eliminating the insurance subsidy for members of Congress and their staff, just 12 Republicans voted no. And on postponing the mandate and requiring a House-Senate conference to negotiate a compromise on spending and Obamacare, only 9 Republicans balked.

 In mid-January, House Republicans gathered in Williamsburg, Virginia, for a retreat that turned out to have far-reaching consequences. Republicans still talk glowingly about the “Williamsburg spirit.” They regard it as historic. Indeed, it was.

Two things happened. Republicans had lost only eight House seats in the 2012 election, but with Obama’s victory the national mood seemed to have swerved in a liberal direction. Boehner and the House leadership, however, took the party in the opposite direction. It was a startling change, an unexpected but near-total victory for House conservatives. And along with that, opposition to Obama’s agenda was significantly stiffened.

The effects of Williamsburg were not felt immediately. Now they are. Boehner unleashed conservatives more than he could have imagined. He’s repeatedly tried to follow a cautious approach in opposing Obama, only to be forced to give way to a more confrontational strategy. It’s a strategy that has resuscitated the drive to kill Obamacare and led to the government shutdown.

In Williamsburg, Boehner sought advice from five senior House members, nicknamed “the Jedi Council.” The group consists of Jordan, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Tom Price of Georgia, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Jordan, Price, and Hensarling are former RSC chairmen. Scalise is the current chairman. This means they are dependable conservatives, as is Ryan.

Scalise describes the RSC’s job as one-pronged: pushing the House to the right. Before this year, he says, GOP leaders often promoted centrist bills that morphed into liberal legislation in the Senate. Scalise wants to “advance conservative causes.” Oddly enough, he was the preferred candidate of Boehner and company in the election of a new RSC chairman last November.

For months, the Jedi group had been meeting for breakfast in the basement of the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hangout adjacent to the congressional office buildings. What they told Boehner and the GOP leadership was unsurprising​—​unless one assumed conservative Republicans were condemned to cozy up to Obama. They recommended specific conservative policies that were later given the somewhat inflated title of the Williamsburg Accord.

Republicans would back budgets that reached balance in 10 years. Rather than soften the mandatory spending cuts of the 10-year “sequester,” they would enforce it fully. They would insist on “regular order” rather than CRs to fund the government​—​that is, pass spending bills, then resolve House-Senate differences in conferences. They would mandate “no budget, no pay” for members of Congress.

The impact of the “no pay” rule was instant. Under Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate hadn’t passed a budget in four years. Soon after the House rule was announced, Reid promised to pass one. And did.

Holding the line on the sequester was important for strategic reasons. It gives Republicans an advantage over Obama. The sequester was a brainstorm of the White House, but the president has grown to loathe its cuts in social spending. He’s eager to replace it, at least partially with tax hikes.

To the delight of Republicans, the sequester turns the tables on Obama. He had the upper hand in the “fiscal cliff” talks. If no deal were reached, higher tax rates would have gone into effect for all taxpayers, a nightmare Republicans wanted to avert. Now, since the sequester’s spending reductions are automatic, it’s Obama who wants a deal with Republicans. Thus, Republicans have a strong card to play in any negotiations.

As sweet as Williamsburg was, getting Boehner to follow through hasn’t been a snap. In Williamsburg, he said he wanted to hear policy ideas from Republican members rather than develop them at the top. This was dubbed the “bubble up” approach. The problem is Boehner hasn’t liked some of the ideas that are bubbling up.

In June, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana proposed to split the farm bill into two parts, one for farm programs, the other for food stamps. Boehner was opposed and kept the Stutzman proposal from consideration on the House floor. He relented after the undivided farm bill was defeated. Once separated, both a farm bill and a scaled-back food stamp program passed.

That was just the beginning. In July, another group of House conservatives destined to win Boehner over went public. The “Cajun Caucus” had been meeting since early 2011 at the townhouse of Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida a few blocks from the Capitol. Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana cooked Cajun food for dinner, thus the name. Landry lost in a 2012 primary.

The class of 2010 dominates the group: Southerland, Labrador, Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Tom Graves of Georgia. Jordan, a Jedi, also attends. A few elected in 2012 joined the group, notably Mark Meadows of North Carolina. He was invited to a caucus dinner, but missed several subsequent ones. His staff thought Meadows, who isn’t Cajun, had been invited by mistake and declined several invitations.

Meadows, a real estate developer who won his first bid for elective office last year, is an ardent Reaganite. The former president, he says, “was a principled conservative who had a conservative world view and could articulate it compassionately and always find common ground to accomplish it.” That’s Meadows’s ideal.

In July, Meadows circulated a letter to Boehner and Cantor “encouraging” them to defund Obamacare. The letter quickly got 80 signers. But Boehner balked, preferring to add Republican amendments to the debt limit bill, not the CR. Cantor came up with a different approach that would have allowed the Senate to reject defunding without shutting down the government. A whip count found it lacked enough votes.

So Boehner adopted defunding. It was a smart, bold, and necessary move. But it was the result of what he set in motion at the Williamsburg retreat and what House Republicans heard at town hall meetings during the August congressional recess.

There were “major, major issues such as the IRS, Benghazi, Syria, the NSA,” that Tom Graves thought would be raised, but “our town halls were mainly about Obamacare.” Graves, who narrowly lost to Scalise in the election of an RSC chairman, concluded his highest priority is do all he can “to protect our citizens from Obamacare.”

Jordan, elected against a Democratic tide in 2006, believes the struggle over Obamacare was inevitable. “We won in 2010 on the issue of Obamacare,” he told me. Then the issue was sidelined, first by the Supreme Court case in 2011 and then by the Romney campaign in 2012. “There’s no one else to do the job except the people who were sent to do it, House
Republicans,” says Jordan. “This had to happen.”

What have we learned about Boehner and Republicans from all this? Five things.

One, Boehner is more adept and clever than his reputation in the media would lead one to believe. In moving to the right, he acknowledged that smart but impatient conservatives are the majority in the Republican caucus. Those labeled “chuckleheads” last year by retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio​—​perhaps as many as 20 libertarians, loners, and oddballs​—​are peripheral actors. And the notion that an amorphous “Tea Party” or various right-wing lobbies call the shots is absurd.

Two, it takes conservative policy initiatives to unify House Republicans. True, a few dozen moderates and old bulls are upset about the government shutdown and the blame Democrats and the media are heaping on Republicans. Their angst is understandable. But if they are permitted to rule the roost, GOP unity collapses, and Boehner will be on his way out.

Three, the very partial government shutdown is not the end of the world for Republicans. The shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 weren’t either. Obama’s insistence on not rising to the occasion​—​his unpresidential passivity​—​means he’ll share any political damage. By refusing to negotiate, he acts as if dealing with the crisis in Washington isn’t in his job description. Most Americans, who expect a lot from their president, wouldn’t agree. Can you think of any other president who neglected his duty in this fashion? I can’t.

Four, the shutdown hasn’t paralyzed Republican leaders. Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy have proved to be quite resourceful in responding to Democratic claims of hardship and cruelty in the shutdown. Medical trials at the National Institutes of Health have been postponed? Okay, the House passed a bill to continue NIH funding. National parks are closed? The House voted to open them. Veterans are suffering? The House funded their benefits. The National Guard and reserves have been sidelined? The House voted to reactivate them. Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have pressured their underlings to vote against these bills, but 57 have broken ranks. That’s progress, but not enough to overcome the Democratic Senate. Compare that with Republican unity. And when CNN’s Dana Bash asked Reid about possible harms to a child with cancer, he had an anxiety attack. Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, among others, was an early advocate of this tactic.

Five, leading with a strong yet unattainable proposal can make a fallback position quite acceptable. Defunding Obama-care was a bridge too far for most Americans. Guess what? While 53 percent in a Fox News poll oppose defunding, a 57 percent majority believe Obamacare “should be delayed for a year until more details are ironed out.”

That Boehner has capitulated to right-wing noisemakers is the idea-du-jour in political and press circles. It’s half true. He’s caved, but it’s to Republican reality, which is closer to the beliefs of most Americans than what is emerging these days from the Obama-Reid-Pelosi axis. Boehner may have jumped on a train as it was leaving the station. But he did it in time to steer the train where it needs to go. 

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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