Newly Aggressive

With Trouble at Home, Boehner Fights the Right

His speakership was stalled by GOP infighting—but no more, with Boehner telling off outside groups, hiring a tough-as-nails immigration reform staffer, and gearing up for reelection.

You could almost hear the fist pumps across Washington when John Boehner lashed out at conservative interest groups.

“They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said at a press conference last week. “This is ridiculous.”

And with that, Boehner not only said what a number of Republicans had been thinking, he also hit the gas on a speakership almost totally stalled by wrangling and tangling within his own Republican caucus, infighting that was increasingly being driven not by the members themselves but by the outside groups looking to fund-raise off disagreements with GOP leaders.

Boehner’s decision to fight back against outside conservative activists, along with a key hire on immigration reform and a move last Monday to file papers for his own reelection in Ohio’s 8th District, show the newly aggressive speaker taking matters into his own hands and out of the death grip of the raucous caucus that elected him to lead the House in 2011 but has done little of substance since then.

The series of events has enraged conservatives in Washington and even in Boehner’s own Ohio district. But it also has given immigration activists in particular hope that he might use his newfound interest in passing bills to pass theirs, particularly in light of his recent decision to hire Becky Tallent, Sen. John McCain’s former chief of staff, to run immigration reform for the speaker’s office.

People who have worked with Tallent describe her as smart, deeply versed in immigration policy, and a tough-as-nails negotiator who knows where the path lies to get immigration reform done. In other words, she’s not the kind of woman you’d hire to work on a dead issue.

“The fact that opponents of immigration reform have been apoplectic over her hiring should tell you something,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group.

But Sharry pointed to another factor that gives him even more confidence: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Boehner’s secret sauce on the budget deal who could be just as valuable on an immigration reform package, which Ryan worked for months to negotiate behind the scenes before talks broke down over the summer.

“If it were just up to John Boehner, I’d be worried,” Sharry said. “It’s Paul Ryan’s involvement that gives me hope.”

Boehner’s use of Ryan also may offer the strongest indication that Boehner isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. By keeping Ryan by his side for every step of the budget deal, he was able both to utilize Ryan’s popularity among conservatives to pass the bill and to neutralize the Wisconsin congressman, who has long been assumed to be Boehner’s most likely successor as speaker if conservatives ever truly revolted, by allowing no daylight between the two on the budget.

But like any other member of the House, Boehner has to take care of business at home before he can go on with his job as speaker. And some of his constituents, particularly Tea Party groups, say they’re not sure they want him back, especially after last week’s outburst at the Washington-based conservative groups.

“I don’t think that was directed toward us, but a lot of our members really took it personally because they affiliate with those groups,” said Ann Becker of the Cincinnati Tea Party. “It was a tough week for a lot of them.”

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Becker described a conservative coalition in Boehner’s district that has moved away from him as he has shown more willingness to consider bills it fundamentally opposes.

She said her Tea Party group’s relationship with the speaker’s office essentially ended over its opposition to the Senate immigration reform bill. For Becker, it was Boehner’s willingness to raise the debt ceiling. For others it was his decision to allow a House vote to reopen the government in October that also funded portions of Obamacare, which some local Tea Partiers began calling “O’Boehner-care.”

“He is compromising way too much for political gain,” Becker said.

In a recent straw poll among Tea Party supporters in the 8th District, Becker said Boehner received no votes. Already, four Republicans have announced they’ll run against him in the primary.

“There were a lot of Tea Party people who gave John Boehner the benefit of the doubt for a long time,” she said. “But after the shutdown, I think a lot of people said, ‘He just doesn’t get it.’”