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The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

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John Boehner in 1997, a lieutenant in the Gingrich revolution.   

This spring, I asked Steve LaTourette, a recently retired House Republican, also from Ohio, what he thought John Boehner might still enjoy about his job. There was a long silence. “I’d be interested to know his answer,” he finally said, ­“because I can’t figure out anything he’d still enjoy. I’d be depressed. I’d be ripping my hair out. I’m surprised he’s not bald.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Boehner is one of the most beleaguered powerful people in Washington. From almost the beginning of his tenure, he has been under the implicit or explicit threat of a coup. But right now, with the recent passage of the Senate immigration-reform bill, his dilemma—and the central riddle of his speakership—has never been so sharply defined: What is Boehner looking for in this job? Is it only to survive? To serve his party? To serve his ideals? To simply avoid humiliation? Or to enact a plan no one else appears to be aware of? What does John Boehner want?

Last Wednesday, following a closed-door session with GOP House members, the signals from Boehner on this issue were hardly encouraging to Democrats: When he emerged, he and his fellow leaders issued a statement repeating that they would not take up the Senate bill, which they considered weak on border security and overly ambitious in reach, and he repeated the same thing at his weekly press conference the next morning. But even then—even as Boehner was excoriating the Senate bill—he wouldn’t quite rule out the possibility of bringing a smaller bill to the House floor that allowed for a pathway to citizenship, which for Democrats is key, and he repeated the message he’d communicated even more emphatically to members behind closed doors: The House had to do something.

Even as he seemed to be killing the bill, in other words, he was acknowledging the importance of keeping it alive.

For months, the man has been a regular hologram. Stand in this corner of the room, you see someone who wants to strike a deal; stand in another, you see someone who doesn’t. He’s thus far appeared in all forms to all people, at once supportive of both the Hispanic caucus and his right-most flank. On the day the bill passed the Senate, I asked Luis Gutiérrez, the key Democrat in the House’s bipartisan immigration coalition, whether he thought Boehner would like to pass an immigration bill palatable to Democrats, and he essentially said yes (“I think he’s for the complete package”); the same day, I asked Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who came out against the speaker in the January coup, and he seemed convinced Boehner wouldn’t dare cross his rank-and-file members—they’ve finally got the speaker’s ear, he says, and the bill isn’t urgent: “Immigration reform doesn’t have to pass,” he said. “It’s not the debt ceiling.”

And when I asked Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what he thought Boehner wanted, he said it was probably to pass some form of amnesty … but it’d be insanely hard to do: “I think John Boehner the legislator, at a time when Republicans and Democrats could actually work together, would be at the table with Republicans and Democrats, trying to figure out what’s the best way for the path to citizenship,” he said. “But he’s in an untenable position.”

This much is clear: Everyone on the Hill has become a Boehnerologist, trying to divine what he thinks and what, by extension, he’s going to do. At one point during the press conference two weeks ago, Boehner declared, with evident exasperation, “You’re reading things into what I’m saying,” to which the reporter with whom he was chatting replied, to much laughter, “Right.”

If Boehner were clearer about his own beliefs, there’d be less reason for speculation, of course. This spring, he spoke enthusiastically about the House bipartisan group’s plan, calling it “a pretty responsible solution”—and according to Gutiérrez, that solution included a pathway to citizenship. That’s reason enough to think this is where his heart truly is (or at least the rough neighborhood). But then, as it became clear that his more radical members would never stand for such a thing, Boehner, no doubt sensing that his job was again at stake, started to show more skepticism as the Senate’s immigration efforts coalesced and he issued a statement shortly before Memorial Day that said the House would do its own bill. Yet some members remained unconvinced, so Boehner reassured them that he wouldn’t bring an immigration bill to the House floor unless most of his conference approved of it, all while telling the press that he was aiming for a bill that would get a majority of both parties’ support.


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