For House speaker John Boehner, Tea Party Republicans weren’t the problem as he sought support for a package of spending cuts attached to an increase in the debt limit. The biggest impediment to a House majority was Republicans fearful a primary opponent would use a vote to boost the debt limit against them.
House Republicans with Tea Party connections were divided, most siding with Boehner. Still, Boehner was left as many as 10 votes short of the 216 needed to win passage of his debt ceiling bill. None of the Republicans opposed to the measure would budge. Boehner had hit a wall.
And so we come to the series of events that led to last week’s approval of the final Boehner plan. It was a victory that vindicated Boehner’s mild-mannered leadership, kept House Republicans from fracturing bitterly, and gave Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor a major role in shaping the outcome of the struggle over the debt limit.
Faced with certain defeat last Thursday night, Boehner was forced to postpone a vote—an embarrassing retreat. In a last-ditch effort to pick up votes, Cantor and Republican whip Kevin McCarthy had collected a roomful of “no” voters in McCarthy’s office on the ground floor of the Capitol. This included the five South Carolina members who had been the focus of their coaxing. The thinking was that if these members flipped and backed Boehner, more switchers would follow.
The group was asked if putting a balanced budget amendment in the bill would make them consider changing their votes. Many hands went up, but none from the South Carolina bloc. This offered hope, but Boehner decided against calling for a late night floor vote. They’d get back to the issue Friday morning.
By then, Boehner and his aides had revised the legislation. It would now require a balanced budget amendment to be passed and sent to the states for ratification before the second increase in the debt limit could be approved in early 2012.
Democrats, liberals, the media, rent-seeking corporate heads, an untold number of interest groups, and the permanent Washington establishment loathe the budget amendment. But it’s extraordinarily popular with the public. And that was important for Boehner’s purpose. It was a tranquilizer for jittery Republicans. They could boast of insisting it be in the bill, thus offsetting their vote for raising the debt limit. It was a clever trade-off and it worked. Boehner got the last 10 votes he needed.
Among those who finally decided to back the speaker were Rick Berg of North Dakota, Todd Akin of -Missouri, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, all three of whom are running for the Senate next year. Absent the -amendment, they were ready to vote against Boehner.
The South Carolina Five didn’t buckle. Why? One can only guess, but I suspect South Carolina -senator Jim DeMint had a lot to do with it. He’s become a powerful conservative force who routinely intervenes in primaries across the country to endorse and raise money for Re-publican challengers, often the most conservative candidate in the race. Those he backs admire his political courage.
DeMint strongly opposes any hike in the debt limit, and he reaffirmed his opposition after the Boehner bill passed. For a Republican in South Carolina, crossing DeMint on an issue of this magnitude would be risky.
Boehner’s reputation is the opposite of DeMint’s. Yet conservative reformers like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, regard the veteran Ohio Republican as an ally. Boehner unflinchingly backed Ryan’s budget that slashes spending and modernizes Medicare and Medicaid.
Boehner set the tone for this debt limit drive with a speech to the Economic Club of New York on May 9. “Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase,” he said. “And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.”
Democrats were appalled, the media surprised, and Republicans worried Boehner wouldn’t be able to achieve this goal. Not only has he succeeded, but President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid have accepted Boehner’s terms. Boehner has created a precedent for debt ceiling increases: They must be balanced by the same amount in spending cuts.
Boehner has probably spent more time with Obama than any other Republican on Capitol Hill. But it’s gotten him in trouble only once. And all his disagreements with the president have turned out well.
The mistake was joining Obama in pursuit of a “grand bargain” to cut deficits over the next decade by $4 trillion. This got Boehner into the sensitive area of tax hikes. Obama bailed him out, however, by his greediness in demanding an extra $400 billion in taxes. That prompted Boehner to leave the talks, a bold action that flustered Obama.
Days later, they clashed in televised speeches. The president delivered a string of tired platitudes from his campaign speeches. Boehner’s remarks were folksy but substantive: “The president has often said we need a ‘balanced’ approach, which in Washington means: We spend more, you pay more.”
The White House, the Senate, and the press weren’t Boehner’s only foes. There was an enemy within, the Republican Study Committee. It has existed for years, putting out conservative issue statements and studies. But in the debt limit fight, it deployed a whip team to round up Republicans against Boehner’s plan, even recruiting conservative groups to lobby them.
Boehner batted them down more gently than his colleagues in the GOP leadership would have. He wanted to prevent a deep and lingering split. After voting against Boehner, RSC chairman Jim Jordan, a fellow Ohioan, praised him for his “tireless work to achieve real spending cuts without tax increases.”
One measure of a political leader is his ability to rebound from defeat, or near-defeat in Boehner’s case. He proved to be resilient and resourceful. Republicans feared he’d gotten in over his head in his one-on-one negotiations with the president. My guess is Obama doesn’t think so.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.