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The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

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Which has left his most hard-line members confused, and still suspicious. In late June, Steve King, the Iowa Republican whose views on immigration are among the most radical in his party, told me that a “sizable percentage” of the GOP conference still wasn’t sure Boehner meant it when he said he’d keep the bill off the floor if it didn’t garner the majority of his party’s support.

Right, I said. But hadn’t Boehner just made this very promise that morning in a closed-door meeting with the entire GOP conference? “That’s my understanding,” he replied. “I wish I had written it down.”

Ultimately, there are really just three possibilities about what’s been going on in Boehner’s mind: First, that he secretly wants a deal with Democrats on immigration but is playing a long game, hoping to bring enough Republican members onboard to make them feel like they’ve had some say in the process; second, that he’s a nihilist who cares more about survival than policy and will therefore choose the path of least resistance (in this version, the speakership, to Boehner, is more of a lifestyle than a calling); and third, that he has no plan and is improvising as he goes.

It’s likely all three possibilities are at play at once. Almost everyone in politics balances high-minded ideals with a more primal desire to hang onto his or her job. In a typical political leader, this dilemma would be playing out in a way the public understands. But Boehner is not typical, even though he looks the part. He’s not a raging narcissist, he’s not a crusading ideologue, he’s not a visionary or a camera hog or a policy nerd. He’s not a saint, either. His drives and desires are cryptic. As his friend and fellow Ohio representative Pat Tiberi likes to point out, he’s a paradox, someone who very much wanted the speakership and then stripped himself of all the tools that most speakers use to lead. Like earmarks, most famously—money set aside for pet projects in individual districts, which is always good for bribing members. Boehner has also ceded far more control to his committee chairmen than those preceding him.

Which means the speaker is, to some degree, winging it. The way he describes this process is “letting the House work its will.” But what it feels like, really, is that he’s biding his time, letting the clock run out, and defining winning by still standing at the end.

Getting his conference under control seems out of the question. His majority, which he owes to the tea-party wave of 2010, has been unusually hostile to old-school concepts like compromise. It’s almost as if Boehner has two different parties to run: conservatives and an ultranationalist, socially conservative, hard-line Le Pen fringe. (In fact, Sarah Palin recently threatened to break from the GOP and start a Freedom Party of her own.) In the past twelve months, Boehner hasn’t been able to drum up enough votes out of his conference to support his own plan to avert the fiscal cliff, nor was he able to get the majority of their support to pass Hurricane Sandy Relief or the Violence Against Women Act.

Mike Simpson, a subcommittee chairman on Appropriations and an ally of the speaker’s, told me that he tried to explain to a few newer members that by refusing to compromise, they were driving their leadership into the arms of the Democrats. “I said to them, ‘Where do you think I go to get 218 votes, if I can’t go to you?’ ” he said. But his words landed on uncomprehending ears. “They looked at me and said, ‘Well, I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t know if I agree with you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care if you agree with me! This is just the way it is.’ ”

Such intransigence invites the question of whether anyone could manage the conference better. Even Steve King conceded he wasn’t sure: “It’s a hard job. I don’t know.” A number of Boehner’s allies would argue that the days of GOP tough-guy speakers are long gone. “You couldn’t be a speaker who’s a kneecapper,” says Pat Tiberi. “We have too many members who run against power. Who run against the Establishment.”

To control his unruly right flank, Boehner has lately devised a new strategy: He now allows every harebrained idea this motley, fractious conference has to be aired and, in many cases, to come to the floor. The House has become the new Senate. In fact, the Senate has become the more productive body of the two chambers, which is remarkable given that its complex rules generally conspire against passing so much as a saltshaker. “It’s the standing joke: The Senate is the old folks’ home where not much happens,” said Steve LaTourette when we spoke this spring. “But they produced a highway bill. They produced a farm bill.”


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