When he rose to the role of speaker on Jan. 5, 2011, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, assumed the gavel as he wiped tears from his eyes. He pledged to reign in the role of the federal government and reverse the course of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda. He looked out onto a fresh-faced caucus, 87 new Republicans had made the moment possible.
"No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today, we begin to carry out their instructions," Boehner said.
There was no sign that doing any business at all would become quite so problematic.
During his tenure as the speaker, Boehner has never known a time when his caucus has been subdued, willing to let this or that fight slide, or go with the flow in the name of prodding essential policies along. From debt ceiling to food stamps, a coalition of Republicans in the House has clearly established its own agenda, a rallying cry to only do what their conservative constituents back home urge them to no matter the costs. "These folks are not really interested in being part of the team and moving in a direction that benefits the team," says former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, a close ally to Boehner who retired in 2013. "He is like the emperor with no clothes."
Boehner has a big decision to make this weekend. While the country stares at a government shut down looming, Boehner will finally have to decide if the will of his most conservative caucus is the will of the House, or whether it is time to leave those members behind.
There are only four days left for Boehner to get his caucus united behind a funding bill, send it back to the Senate and get it signed by the president before the government shuts down.
At this point, Boehner has become accustomed to lurching from one fiscal fight to the next, the latest crisis is the third major showdown the speaker has presided over.
Through it all, Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel says the speaker's leadership style has remained the same.
"He is open and honest and up front with everyone he meets," Steel says. "He works hard with the team to establish goals from the team and for the team...he has certainly learned things along the way."
In the summer of 2011, Boehner met for months with Obama in closed-door meetings. But the "merlot and Nicorette" sessions intended to broker a deficit-reducing package in exchange for a debt ceiling hike, came to a halt. Republicans thought they had a deal with the White House – $800 billion in new tax revenue in exchange for more than $3 trillion in spending cuts. But when the bipartisan "gang of six," a few days later, released more than $1 trillion in new revenue, the dynamic changed (how is a point of contention). Republicans and Democrats both pressed their leaders to push for more, the country's credit rating was downgraded and the Budget Control Act was born.
Since then, Boehner has been a reluctant negotiator with the White House, telling reporters that he won't be gallivanting back and forth to the White House to resurrect a bipartisan debt ceiling negotiation ahead of the Oct. 17 deadline. "I'm not doing that," he told Politico on Sept. 19.
"After August 2011, there was a breakdown in trust between the White House and the House," says LaTourette. "After that deal blew up, [Boehner] said 'there's no point in talking to that guy anymore.'"
For future negotiations, Boehner turned inward to his caucus for support and leverage. At the end of 2012, with automatic budget cuts and a tax hike on the horizon, Boehner looked to unite his members in a GOP plan he could present to the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a bargaining chip. But members were reluctant to unite behind Boehner's "plan B," which would have permanently extended Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making less than $1 million a year.
Republicans didn't want taxes to increase on anyone.
Not even a serenity prayer could save the speaker's "Plan B." He was forced to pull the bill from the House floor.
Members say they've seen the speaker's leadership style evolve albeit in small ways since then. What began as a speaker committed to a "grand bargain" has shifted to one inclined (maybe even forced) to consider more closely the wishes of his most conservative and aggressive members.
"He's become very good at listening," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a moderate member of the caucus. "I think clearly there was a realization very early on, because we had these waves of new people, that you cannot just do this bottom down."
Diaz-Balart defends Boehner and says he was dealt a tough hand—a passionate caucus that doesn't always understand the way Washington works.
"It has been a learning process for everybody," Diaz-Balart says. "We have lots of new people, very good, bright, aggressive people, but in some cases, with very little understanding of how to get things done in this process."
Boehner has had to cede ground on a host of issues because of deep divisions within his caucus. He relied on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to corral her Democratic caucus to get the Violence Against Women Act across the finish line. And he had to split the farm provisions from the country's food stamp program for the first time in more than 30 years to attract the GOP votes he needed to pass a farm bill.
There are some issues that inevitably unite the caucus though On Sept. 20 Boehner gave his Republican caucus exactly what it wanted: a chance to vote on a government funding bill that defunded the president's health care plan. He'd given his caucus more than 40 opportunities to repeal Obamacare, but this, many in his caucus argued, was the best chance Boehner had ever given them to stop the law in its tracks.
The House overwhelmingly, although almost entirely along party lines, approved the measure. And the Senate, as expected, sent it straight back Friday with the "defund Obamacare" provision stripped, leaving Boehner and the House Republicans back at square one.
Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have promised the GOP caucus that they will push to delay Obamacare for a year through the upcoming debt ceiling fight, but it is still unclear whether Republicans like Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., or Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., will be willing to give up on the defund fight that easily.
"Some of those guys are like the Blues Brothers. They are on a mission from God," LaTourette said.
LaTourette remembers Boehner pulling out all the stops to get his rank-and-file to fall in line, but no perk were good enough nor argument compelling enough to turn the tide.
"He has invited people to be part of the team. He has rewarded them with plum committee assignments. He has used logic and about the only thing he hasn't used is physical violence," LaTourette said.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, is one such member who is reluctant to follow the speaker's lead.
Gohmert, who voted against Boehner for speaker earlier this year, says Boehner spends too much time calculating what Democrats want.
"It looks like we still have some work to do when we have a major victory, where our party stands together that we don't immediately start trying to bid against ourselves in the negotiation with the Senate," Gohmert says. "It always seems like something else is being negotiated."
Gohmert says he is tired of being asked to be a team player when he believes Boehner is making the wrong decisions for the squad.
"They love to use football metaphors like all the Republicans need to be running down the field , running the same play. I completely agree, but when my quarterback calls a play and he wants me to run to the wrong end zone, I am not going to block for him," Gohmert says.
Democrats have also lost their patience with Boehner.
Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says he is done feeling sympathetic toward the speaker and his rag-tag, rank-and-file members. Hoyer and 185 other Democrats sent an open letter Wednesday to the White House in support of a clean funding bill, a sign that if he wanted, Boehner may be able to court the roughly 30 moderate Republicans he needs to help pass the legislation and avoid a government shutdown.
"My gratuitous, unsolicited advice: there are a majority of members in the House of Representatives that will act responsibly and compromise," Hoyer said Wednesday. "I think there is a working majority for responsibility in the House of Representative that is not being allowed to manifest itself."
LaTourette warns against betting against Boehner just yet, even as the time wears out.
"At the end of the day, he will prevail. No matter what sort of strange path he has to take," LaTourette says of Boehner. "I have to believe that people run for office to make the country a better place. But that doesn't mean that it isn't going to messy."
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