When the Speaker is undercut by the right, he comes across as weaker than he truly is.
Maybe it’s time to think of the Republican House as a coalition government.
On paper, the GOP currently has 245 members, but when 50 feel they can walk away from their leadership on any given day, it’s really a plurality, not a majority.
The House, then, is not controlled by one party but is better understood as a playing field for at least three: the party on the right; the dominant Republican core in the center; and the left, represented by the Democrats.
The challenge is to build alliances among these three to get to the 218 votes needed to move legislation. This coalition approach may seem a blow to Republican pride, but it could also be liberating for John Boehner since it brings him back to the role he often forgets: speaker of the House.
For all of Boehner’s eye-rolling and the low standing of Congress generally, being speaker is a very big deal. It’s the first office mentioned in the Constitution — before the vice president — and the American model comes with remarkable powers over the timing of bills and what amendments will be permitted.
But unlike the British speaker in Parliament, the American speaker is a much more partisan figure, asked to be the leader of his party as well as the presiding officer and chief voice for the institution. This requires a sense of balance that all modern speakers have struggled with, but Boehner often seems to be so vested in his party role that he forgets the rest.
Thus when the speaker is undercut by the right — as seen most recently in the fight over the Homeland Security budget — he comes across as weaker than he truly is. And that costs him on two fronts.
First, it seems to blind Washington to the fact that this same man was once a legislator and chairman willing to build alliances with Democrats. Second, Boehner’s public image of uncertainty infects his rank and file. He seems less a proud speaker and more like another “shake-and-bake” infantry officer in Vietnam whose fears undercut the discipline in his platoon.
This was seen again in Tuesday’s final vote on the $39.7 billion Homeland bill. After all the contortions, it passed comfortably. But 167 Republicans — more than three times the defectors last week — sought political cover by voting no at Boehner’s expense.
Most striking of all was the fact that the House Appropriations Committee, which had written and negotiated the underlying bill, lost more than half its Republican members.
Among the 16 “nays” were three Cardinals, or subcommittee chairmen, as well as several members of the Homeland Security panel most responsible for the bill.
“It’s astounding,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who managed the bill on the floor for the Appropriations leadership. And for this to happen on a committee so invested in moving legislation shows how much Republican morale has plummeted without more direction from the top.
Much is made of the threat from the right to oust Boehner from the speakership. But that’s easier said than done and would require two things Boehner’s critics in the House have shown no ability to do: build a bipartisan majority and come up with a strong candidate to replace the Ohio Republican.
When former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was threatened with a coup in the summer of 1997, he had major loyalty problems in his leadership team. There is no evidence of that among those around Boehner. And when Gingrich was finally forced out, it was at the end of a Congress — not at the beginning of the two-year term, like Boehner’s situation.
Under a century-old 1910 House precedent established under Speaker Joe Cannon, any member can offer a privileged resolution to declare the speaker’s office vacant and thereby force fresh elections of a new speaker. But this will require a majority of the House to pass, and Democrats are very wary of supporting such a resolution since no party wants the other to be able to decide its internal struggles.
The reality then is that Boehner is more secure than it might appear to some. He has a new term and a Republican Senate and is at a point in his life when he has to be conscious of his speakership’s place in history.
He knows, too, that the Homeland fight, which just consumed so much time and bred such bitterness, is the easy part of this year. The much more complicated budget fight is around the corner, and Republicans have invested a huge amount in their promise to have a joint House-Senate spending and tax plan in place by mid-April.
This is the necessary first step toward the GOP goal of harnessing the expedited reconciliation process to force major reforms through Congress. But just this week, prominent Senate and House members were demanding more money for defense than even President Barack Obama asked for on top of the appropriations caps for 2016.
How can this be squared with those demanding 10-year plans that not only wipe out future deficits but begin to make payments on the debt?
Budget resolutions are typically very partisan affairs, meaning Boehner will be looking more to the right for votes. But the rich complexity of the issues ahead also offers opportunities to deal with Democrats.
The Homeland debate was certainly a lesson in the fact that his Senate partner, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), needs Democratic votes to get legislation through the Senate. Why should Boehner leave all the deal-making to McConnell and not make some of his own?
“It’s always incumbent on any speaker or majority leader to get to 218 on their own side, but if you can’t get there, you can’t let a minority in your own conference hold you hostage, and that’s what was happening last week,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has been supportive of Boehner. “We still have to deal with the Senate filibuster, so we’re going to have to have some Democrats over there, which means it’s not going to be to the liking of everybody over here.”
Cole would argue that the best analogy for today is the 110th Congress, when Democrats had regained control of Congress but were frustrated through 2007-08 by filibusters in the Senate and vetoes from President George W. Bush.
“We are in the reverse position of what they were [in],” Cole said. “They won a majority on the Iraq War, but they couldn’t stop it, they couldn’t overcome a Bush veto, and they couldn’t stop a Republican Senate filibuster.”
But no Democratic faction in those years ever undercut its leadership to the degree that the right has attempted with Boehner. And that is why it has to be seen as something new, a third party on the right under the coalition government scenario.
What’s not clear is whether these members are truly comfortable being in the majority, with the responsibilities that brings. Or do they see themselves as a protest movement against Obama and not obliged to come up with a vote-getting legislative strategy.
That question was raised again Tuesday when one after another raged — often eloquently — at the Senate for its filibuster rules, which Democrats had used to block the House-passed version of the Homeland bill and its amendments challenging Obama’s immigration policies.
“I have to tell you that the only reason we are here is because of the unique procedural posture that the Senate finds itself in,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.). “And that unique posture is a perversion of the democratic principles upon which our republic was based.”
Put aside the fact that Republicans in the Senate have long used the same filibuster rules to block legislation they oppose. The filibuster was not the only 60-vote barrier that McConnell faced.
The same House amendments to the Homeland bill had triggered a budget point of order because they added to the deficit over the next 10 years as scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Filibuster or not, that still required 60 votes to waive.