The Magazine

Boehner in Charge

How the House speaker rallied his restive troops.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts