If John Boehner wanted to stay as Speaker, House Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi had a strategy ready to checkmate the Freedom Caucus and its plan to “vacate the chair,” which is legislative speak for Dump Boehner. Pelosi is an institutionalist with deep roots and decades of service in Congress, and she was not about to let some 40 people, members of a conservative caucus representing a mere 10 percent of the House, determine whether the Speaker has to go because they’re not getting their way.
“I talked to my friends – I do have some friends over there,” she said, sketching out a remarkable first draft of history that is at odds with the public perception of how leaders from the two political parties regard each other – and the institution they serve -- in an era of such intense partisanship.
Pelosi quietly let it be known to the Republican leadership that if Boehner chose to tough it out, she had in mind a plan that wouldn’t require Democrats voting for him, would pass Constitutional muster, and keep Boehner in the Speaker’s chair. Pelosi credits Oregon Democrat Suzanne Bonamici with suggesting that a Speaker can be elected by a plurality. “The Constitution says ‘elect Speaker’ – it doesn’t say by majority vote,” Pelosi explained.
House rules require a majority of those present, and if fewer Democrats were present on the day of the vote, for example, Boehner could have reached a majority with, say, 210 votes instead of 218, allowing the Freedom Caucus to take its stand without affecting the outcome.
Pelosi was ready to have “one of my people” question the presiding chair on the day of the vote. “We would protect the institution,” she said. “We would not let a Speaker be overthrown.”
Asked whether she had directly conveyed her intention to Boehner, she said firmly, “That conversation did not have to happen.” In other words, like a long married couple, each with thirty-plus years in the House, saving the institution and its traditions were uppermost.
“I think I’m more unhappy about him leaving than he is,” she told a small group of columnists gathered in her office in the Capitol on Thursday afternoon. “He was completely ready to go. I was surprised – and fear and surprise don’t exist for me,” she said. After all she’s seen in Washington politics, “I had no inkling.”
Pressed for details about her parting conversations with Boehner, Pelosi said she told him, “Let’s go out in style; let’s do some big bill” – “But he wasn’t receptive.” Asked if she proposed something, she said coyly, “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t,” then added with a laugh, “His version of style and my version of style is not the same.”
Still, she commended Boehner for making a big sacrifice in resigning the Speaker’s chair so that a debt default could be averted, and a two-year budget resolution passed with bipartisan support.
“If he funded Planned Parenthood in the CR (continuing budget resolution), he would have to give up the gavel – which he did. That’s a big price to pay for the institution to have a Speaker at the mercy of a bill…He was willing to walk out the door rather than accede to their demands.”
She is still steamed that 151 Republicans, two-thirds or 68 percent of the GOP caucus, voted to default on the full credit of the United States. “Is it not news anymore that the Republicans are irresponsible?” she exclaimed.
Another deadline looms in just five weeks when Republicans are threatening to attach poison-pill riders, like defunding Planned Parenthood, to an appropriations bill, once again raising the specter of a government shutdown.
Asked about her “chemistry” with new Speaker Paul Ryan, whether they’re talking, maybe even having dinner together, Pelosi replied, “I don’t have dinner,” at least not in the conventional sense. “I’ll go home tonight and have a bowl of oatmeal,” she said, explaining that her day doesn’t end until very late because 10 pm in Washington is only 7 pm on the West Coast, and her district is in San Francisco. “My joy in life is my oatmeal.”
What about the House gym then? Ryan works out every day. “I’ve never been to the gym,” she said. “For a billion dollars, I couldn’t tell you where it is.”
Asked what would have happened if she had declared when she became Speaker that she wouldn’t be giving up any of her family time, the mother of five and grandmother of many said, “God bless him – everybody should spend time with their children. But his blueprint is the Ryan budget, and we’ll see how much he sticks to that.” The Ryan budget for those who need a refresher is trickle-down GOP orthodoxy that turns Medicare into a premium support or voucher program.
An aide passed around a press release with the names of the six Democrats who will serve on the Select Committee to investigate Planned Parenthood that was created by Boehner. Pelosi calls it the “Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health.” Republican Marsha Blackburn, one of four GOP women named to the panel by Boehner, calls it the “Select Committee on the handling of infant lives.”
The battle is on before the first witness is called, or hearing held. Despite appearances, Pelosi insists it’s “never personal animosity. This is a marketplace of ideas, the people’s house.” But just in case, she said an aide found an historical construct in the late 1800s that backs up what she was planning, and he will continue to look into it, she said only half-joking. “They may need it.”