For Boehner, It's Getting Tough to Reach Across the Aisle

Reaching across the aisle used to be appreciated as a necessity of legislating.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio swears in members of the 113th Congress, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor Charles Stewart III suggests Boehner may be operating in a time similar to that of the FDR administration. When Roosevelt tried his infamous "court-packing'' tactic, conservatives revolted and southern Democrats began working more with Republicans—a theme that continued for some 50 years, Stewart says. "In that regime, the speaker ended up really being at most a broker, a keeper of the rules, and perhaps a middleman in communicating information and tactics,'' he explains. "But it was a very weak administration; his party apparatus withered. One real possibility is that we're seeing something like that emerging in the House."

Stewart adds that if Boehner gets along with the Democrats, then he might "continue to be the speaker, but could end up being a shell of a leader."

In the case of the fiscal cliff, Boehner had little choice, experts say. From a policy perspective, he faced the possibility of devastating budget cuts (including in defense spending) and dramatic across-the-board tax increases. And while some members of his party appeared willing to go down that road to reduce government, polls show that Americans are putting greater blame on the GOP, a trend Boehner must stop if he wants to keep the majority in two years.

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"At some point, he's going to have to support the president in unpopular positions, and that's a tough position to be in because the conference is divided, and the issues are difficult,'' says Jack Pitney, a former veteran Republican Hill staffer and a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "The things Republicans are talking about involve cutting programs most Americans actually like.''

The alliance with Democrats on the fiscal cliff, while hardly the grand bargain many desire on spending and taxes, "is an example of what we should be doing throughout the year,'' says Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat. The GOP caucus is so divided, Cicilline observes, that it may be easier, at least from a legislative perspective, for Boehner to negotiate with Democrats and pass bills not necessarily backed by a majority of his majority. But that, to Boehner's Tea Party contingent, might be just another unholy alliance.

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  • Susan Milligan is a political and foreign affairs writer and contributed to a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy.