Little more than a decade ago, John Boehner was hanging out with Sen. Ted Kennedy. The conservative Ohio congressman was among the central group of bipartisan, bicameral lawmakers who hammered out the No Child Left Behind education overhaul. And Boehner didn't stop there. He and Massachusetts liberal Kennedy would hold joint dinners every year to raise money for Washington, D.C., Catholic schools.
That cross-party work once was appreciated for its value in developing the negotiating skills and patience required by someone in the job Boehner now holds, speaker of the House. But such relationships are now seen as unholy alliances by a segment of Boehner's Republican caucus, and the tension is likely to continue as Boehner begins his second Congress as speaker.
Boehner's continued service in the job wasn't seamless. He finished his first term as speaker navigating a volatile fight over the fiscal cliff, as conservatives in his caucus, especially the Tea Party movement members, balked at the idea of raising anyone's taxes. In a last-ditch effort to put a GOP stamp on tax policy without letting the country go off the cliff (for more than a day, anyway), Boehner offered up a "Plan B," a package that would raise taxes on people earning more than a million dollars a year. But his own party rejected the idea, leaving Boehner with the choice of passing nothing at all—possibly sending the country into a second recession—or agreeing to a deal to raise taxes on families making more than $450,000. Just days before the election for speaker in the 113th Congress, Boehner let the modified deal come to the floor, where it passed with overwhelming Democratic support and some GOP votes. It was the first time a Republican had broken the so-called "Hastert rule," under which former speaker Dennis Hastert required that any bill have a "majority of the majority" support before he'd let it come up for a vote. Boehner's decision earned him plaudits (arguably more from Democrats) for statesmanship and fiscal responsibility, but it left some hard feelings in his own caucus, so much so that Boehner declined to hold a vote on $60 billion in aid to Superstorm Sandy victims until after the election for speaker.
And despite first-term chatter about Boehner being challenged from the right, perhaps by his second-in-command, Virginian Eric Cantor, Boehner was re-elected on the first ballot. But it was messy, with a dozen Republicans voting "present'' in protest or casting votes for someone else. The speaker kept his job with just a two-vote cushion, winning over 220 members of the House. And had it been a secret ballot, says Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, Boehner would not have won on the first ballot.
"It's a matter of conscience,'' Jones said in explaining his nomination of former comptroller general David Walker. (Speakers do not have to be sitting members of the House.) Jones says he wants someone in the job who is more fiscally conservative—though he volunteered also that he was miffed that Boehner took him off the Financial Services Committee, a development Jones says he learned from the media and not leadership.
Still, Boehner kept his job—and all the headaches expected ahead over financial matters such as tax hikes, spending cuts, the debt ceiling, and the continuing resolution. And unlike some members of his caucus, analysts and congressional historians say, Boehner tends to a more traditional approach that balances his role as party leader with his position as second in line to the presidency after the vice president.
Some speakers have emphasized the party leader role over that of being a legislator, says Randall Strahan, a political science professor and congressional expert at Emory University in Atlanta. "Boehner's perfectly capable of being partisan, but his orientation is to work things out and write bills. It's not to create fights and mobilize a party base,'' Strahan notes. "He's got a very difficult situation here. He's got a group in his conference large enough to deprive the Republicans of a majority on the House floor who have a very strong set of goals about reducing the scope of the federal government. They don't have the votes to achieve what they want to do, but they have the votes to complicate the speaker's life a great deal.''
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.
"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.