07.28.11

Boehner’s Butt-Kicking Moment

Just when Washington is denigrating his debt plan and his party wavering, the House speaker may be about to forge a deal that shortchanges the Democrats. Patricia Murphy on how he’s whipping his troops into line.

After facing down a mini-insurrection within his ranks and telling the rowdy House GOP caucus Wednesday to “get your ass in line,” John Boehner has positioned himself to claim the biggest victory of his career.

That is, if it doesn’t blow up in his face.

The conventional Beltway wisdom is that Boehner is floundering, unable to control his caucus, caught in a vise between Tea Party demands and the need to avoid a devastating default for which Republicans would shoulder much of the blame.

But that verdict misses the magnitude of what the low-key party veteran may accomplish. By forging a debt-ceiling compromise with Democrats that will meet almost no Democratic demands, Boehner will lock down his role as the undisputed leader of the Republican Party—and finally prove to skeptics that the Ohio pragmatist can indeed lead a party of purists and get a few things done in the process.

GOP insiders also say the speaker seems to have killed some of the juiciest palace intrigue in Washington by pushing Majority Leader Eric Cantor out front in the earliest White House negotiations, only to watch Cantor leave the talks in disgust.

“By putting Cantor out there, Boehner was basically saying, ‘Here’s your saw, walk out on the plank and start sawing,’” says one Republican. “And Cantor did it.”

It’s true that no compromise exists yet between the dueling debt-ceiling proposals from Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But if Congress eventually approves either version, Boehner has already made sure they both include his original goals of cutting trillions of dollars from the federal budget and putting entitlement reform and tax reforms on the table.

And in a stunning defeat for Democrats, neither proposal includes tax increases to reduce the deficit, a concession that seems head-scratching when Democrats still control the Senate and White House.

According to GOP aides and those close to the process, getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Boehner, and it sure hasn’t been pretty.

On the day after the speaker released his latest debt limit proposal, the most conservative members of the caucus, led by Rep. Jim Jordan, rushed forward to say that not only would they oppose it, but they doubted Boehner’s plan could even pass the House.

Tea Party groups called the proposal “an embarrassment” and lumped Boehner in with Harry Reid as two Washington insiders more interested in fluffing their own nests than doing the right thing for the country.

The Boehner team started building consensus while marginalizing the increasingly rogue conservative faction within the caucus.

It was then, according to GOP insiders, that Boehner made his move. By relying on an experienced and fiercely loyal group of aides and allies, Boehner and his team aggressively reached out to individual members and key outside interest group leaders in one-on-one meetings. They started building consensus around the Boehner plan while also marginalizing the increasingly rogue conservative faction within the caucus.

“The Boehner team is working the caucus over,” one insider says. “They are reminding members of why they’re in the position they’re in and why they’re on the committees they’re on. All of the tools in the toolbox are being utilized.”

At a Wednesday caucus meeting, Boehner offered his closing argument, telling members that while his bill isn’t perfect, it is “time to do what was doable.” And to the undecideds and the holdouts in the room, Boehner delivered the special message about getting their butts in line.

Shortly after Boehner’s latest full-court press began, high-profile conservatives like Greg Walden, Allen West, and Rob Woodall, who had earlier been undecided on Boehner’s plan, began to come forward and announce they will vote with their leader when the vote comes up this week.

The not-so-subtle arm-twisting came after weeks and months in which a more conciliatory Boehner made a point of seeking out conservatives in the caucus to hear their concerns. “John Boehner has been listening and listening,” says Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). “If there’s one thing he’s done, it’s listening to members.”

In addition to wrangling his members, Boehner has of course been negotiating with the White House and Senate Democrats to get to a grand bargain, or maybe just a bargain, that his caucus can live with. In that process, the conservatives who have given Boehner the hardest time inside the tent have helped him immeasurably as he tried to strike a deal outside the tent.

“There’s a benefit to what [the Tea Party members] are doing. Boehner can look across the negotiating table and say, ‘I can’t get votes on this,’” explains a former GOP staffer. “But they’re not going to get everything they want,”

While Boehner seems poised to claim victory at the end of the process, the roller-coaster nature of the debt talks and spending deals has made predicting the outcome all but impossible.

Convincing freshmen conservatives they can both stay true to their principles and support a plan that falls short of them will be Boehner’s biggest task going into the vote, when he can afford to lose just 23 Republican votes before he’ll need Democratic support get to get to 217 for passage.

“If he gets to 217, has the majority of his conference with him, it’s not going to be a question—it will be seen as a significant victory,” says Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But Bonjean says danger remains for Boehner even after the vote if the final agreement looks like too much of a compromise with Reid or the president.

In the end, Boehner can do nothing but beat the low expectations he faced when he took on what many people believe is the hardest job in Washington.

“The best way to describe it is to say he’s threading a needle. He’s trying to placate conservatives and help his party in the next election, while also solidifying his own position,” says Matthew Green, a professor of political science at Catholic University and author of The Speaker: A Study of Leadership. “On the other hand he doesn’t want to be known as the speaker who let the U.S. default on its obligations. I guess all I can say is I’m glad I’m not in his position.”