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House Dividing

The tea party is revolting—over the budget—which might make John Boehner’s reign shorter than he planned.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Whatever your feelings about public officials with perma-tans and the propensity to weep openly at the slightest provocation, surely, for the sake of bi-partisan comity, we can all agree on at least one thing: At this moment, it must kinda blow to be John Boehner.

Consider the events of last week, as the speaker of the House was scrambling to stitch together a deal to avert a government shutdown before the looming April 8 deadline. On the one hand, Boehner’s putative Democratic opponents in the White House and the Senate were signaling their readiness to seal a budget pact on terms that, by any objective measure, would amount to a major Republican victory. On the other hand, however, were Boehner’s ostensible allies—each behaving like a spastic finger jabbing him in the eye. At the base of the Capitol, the tea-party faithful staged a rally aimed at pressuring House conservatives to brook no compromise. Boehner’s former mentor Newt Gingrich met with GOP freshmen and urged much the same, arguing for spending cuts billions deeper than what the speaker regards as politically feasible. Then there was the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, openly distancing himself from, and positioning himself to the right of, his boss Boehner—a maneuver that struck some as odd, some as shifty, and others as downright treacherous.

Navigating the impasse over the current year’s budget is widely and correctly seen as the first major test of Boehner’s speakership. The choice before him seems stark: strike a deal and risk splintering the new Republican majority in the House or hold his caucus together and risk the political fallout from a shutdown. Will Boehner prove deft enough to find a way to slice this Gordian knot? Quite possibly. But it may provide him little joy, for the past two months have been but a mild preview of the hellish dynamics he will be contending with—times ten and with a vengeance—in the vastly bigger, more dramatic, more consequential budget battle that lies ahead.

Boehner’s preferred outcome in the immediate skirmish is clear enough: He wants a deal. And the reasoning behind that preference is equally crystalline. Having witnessed firsthand the political fallout that buried his party the last time it imposed an extended and unpaid holiday on the federal workforce, in 1995, Boehner is all too aware of the dangers lurking down that path. More to the point, he recognizes a good deal when it falls into his lap. In February, please recall, the House leadership put on the table its opening bid in the negotiations over how much to slash from the remainder of 2011 spending—$32 billion. Two months later, after much haggling, the White House and Senate Democrats have made their counteroffer—$33 billion. What do you call getting even more than you asked for in a negotiation? Unless you’re insane, stoned, or stupid, you call it a big-time win.

I’ll reserve judgment on which category (or categories) the hard-line House freshmen and the tea-party militants occupy. But in any case, they see the nascent deal instead as a gutless capitulation. In February, those forces, spearheaded by the archconservative Republican Study Committee, compelled the leadership to nearly double its proposed cuts to $61 billion. In the House, that package easily passed on a party-line vote, but in the Senate, it was—and remains today, and will forever be—D.O.A. Yet the House hard-liners continue to insist on nothing less.

For Boehner, the route around this problem is the same as the one he used to pass the last short-term continuing resolution to keep the government’s lights on: construct a coalition of mainline Republicans and conservative Democrats. But the cost for Boehner would not be inconsiderable. On that last CR vote, 54 Republicans defected. About as many would be likely to do so again. And one of them, according to Republicans on the Hill, might well be Eric Cantor—a turn of events that would be highly interesting, to say the least, and also potentially portentous.

Indeed, the specter of a Boehner-­Cantor split over a budget deal was the talk of Washington last week, fueled by the majority leader’s conspicuous efforts to put space between himself and the speaker. At a moment when Boehner was leaving open the possibility of another CR, Cantor loudly slammed his foot down: “Time is up here,” he said. And even as Boehner was privately moving toward agreeing to the $33 billion figure being offered by the other side, Cantor firmly insisted that $61 billion “is the House position—that is what we are driving for.”

Now, it’s not inconceivable that what was happening here was a classic bit of good cop, bad cop. But given the overt pressure already coming from the tea party and the freshmen, it’s not as if another snarling law dog was needed on the beat. A more Machiavellian—and, to my mind, more plausible—explanation is that Cantor is seeking to bolster his credentials with the tea party as a replacement for Boehner should an insurrection arise against him. Already Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, has called for a primary challenge to the speaker in 2012. (“Charlie Sheen is now making more sense than John Boehner,” Phillips wrote in a recent blog post.) And that threat was echoed at last week’s tea-party rally.


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