John Boehner's GOP Headaches
John Boehner was spotted wiping away tears Wednesday, but we know now this usually means good news for the Ohio Republican. The opening of the 112th Congress marked the high point of the lawmaker’s career, as his many siblings and friends gathered to watch Boehner be voted speaker of the House and become Washington’s most powerful Republican.
While Boehner was triumphant, he has every reason to watch his back. Eighty-five freshmen Republicans have joined his ranks, composing a Tea Party-fueled caucus that may prove difficult to manage. Washington likes nothing so much as a fall, and Boehner’s perch makes him a target for a big one. Not all the shots may be fired by the Democrats. Within his own party, Republicans are poised to cause trouble. Here are the potential pot-stirrers, from the politicians who could gain from a Boehner stumble to the lawmakers likely to stray from the party line.
Tea Party voters are eager to see Congress finally take a hatchet to government spending, but almost no one in the House GOP wants to identify a single program to cut. Paul Ryan, the new budget chairman from Wisconsin, is an exception, with a detailed plan to balance the long-term budget by privatizing Social Security and Medicare—and he hasn’t been afraid to rebuke his party for not doing the same. Ryan told The Daily Beast that he expected the issue to be addressed this spring in budget negotiations. “We can’t ignore entitlements, that’s 60 percent of our budget,” he said. Boehner could run into trouble with the conservative grassroots if he fails to follow Ryan’s lead and sticks to relatively symbolic spending cuts.
Republicans, traditionally the party of Milton Friedman and monetarism, have taken a notably harsh turn against the Federal Reserve in recent years. But Boehner and GOP leaders are still lagging behind the man who will now chair the House’s oversight of the central bank, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). The libertarian ex-presidential candidate has called for the Fed to be abolished outright and wants currency returned to the gold standard, views still considered on the margins of the party. Paul told The Daily Beast that while he doesn’t agree with Boehner on everything, he felt there was enough common ground to keep up goodwill. “I had unanimous support for my ‘Audit the Fed’ bill from Republicans, and Boehner was a co-signer,” he said. “We want more oversight, we want more transparency of the Fed. I think that’s what we agree on.”
The House is awash in Republican freshmen, but the key positions in Congress are still held by the old guard, some of whom have made plenty of enemies with the base. Hal Rogers’ ascension to chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee was met with cries of protest from Tea Party leaders, thanks to his long history of earmarks requests. If veteran members like Kentucky's Rogers fall back into old habits and can’t patch things up with the new crowd, it could create problems for Boehner. “I think Hal Rogers is a man of integrity,” said Mike Pence, a fellow House GOP veteran. “I really believe he understands, that House Republicans understand, that we’ve got to take decisive steps to put our fiscal house in order.”
The last Republican majority ended with a flurry of corruption and sex scandals, and GOP leaders have insisted that they learned their lesson since 2006. But already Republicans have a scandal on their hands: Newly elected Rep. David Rivera is reportedly under investigation for questionable payments totaling more than $500,000 to his godmother’s consulting firm by a dog track whose interests he championed as a Florida representative. Rivera told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he wasn’t letting news reports on the issue back in his district throw him off and he received a warm welcome from Majority Leader Eric Cantor at his swearing-in ceremony. “Nobody—or any newspaper—is going to deter me from fulfilling the mandate the voters sent me to fulfill,” he said. Boehner may have to cut Rivera loose if the investigation worsens or risk charges of hypocrisy in the new ethics-focused GOP.
The Republican leadership is doing its darnedest to show that there’s no daylight between Rep. Eric Cantor, House majority leader, and his boss, John Boehner. But the Virginia congressman has the most to gain from a back-bench revolt. Cantor, along with his fellow Young Guns Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, has worked hard to carve out a separate image from Boehner—the embodiment of a hip, new school Republicanism. The last time Republicans seized control of the House, in 1994, there was an intraparty putsch. Cantor could be the one left standing if a fight breaks out.
The South Dakota newbie was picked by House Republicans to serve as the freshman liaison to the GOP leadership. This places the prodigious fundraiser in a tight spot. She’ll be expected to voice the concerns of a freshman class that has different goals than the speaker. Take the debt ceiling. Boehner likes to say that voting to raise the amount of federal government debt is an “adult” move. Talk like that makes Boehner look like he is calling Noem and her fellow freshmen a bunch of kids.
Few can elicit Palin-level mania like the Minnesota Republican. (Look! She wants to be president too!) It’s not the only the freshmen whom Boehner will have to worry about. Bachmann seems reluctant to get with the speaker’s program. Conservative poobah Bill Kristol took her to the woodshed Wednesday for her stance against raising the debt ceiling. It’s likely that the Republican star will continue in her iconoclast ways, surely drawing winces from the speaker’s office.
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.