House Dividing

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.

President Obama and his team fully expected this sort of internecine squabbling to erupt within the GOP, and they predicated their approach to the budget fight on it. For many congressional Democrats, that approach has been a source of frustration: too disengaged, too passive. But the president, like the speaker, is intensely wary of the political consequences of a shutdown; though 1995 provides some comfort, the folks at 1600 would be the first to tell you that John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich. By first remaining above the fray and then offering a reasonable compromise, however, White House officials believe they have gone a long way toward inoculating Obama from blame if things blow up. “Look at them, then look at us,” says an administration official. “Voters know a shit show when they see it.”

But even if there is no shutdown, the Obamans see their approach as paying dividends. By meeting Republicans more than halfway on spending cuts, they curry favor with the deficit-minded independent voters with whom Obama is currently suffering. (A new Quinnipiac poll puts his approval rating at just 39 percent with them.) And by, in effect, partnering with Boehner to put together a bi-partisan deal, they are sowing seeds of dissension within the Republican ranks that may flower into something rather lovely in the larger fiscal clash around the corner.

I’m talking, of course, about the epic struggle over the 2012 budget, which will encompass not just dustups over discretionary spending but entitlements, tax policy, and competing long-range visions for the country’s solvency—and is likely to consume the rest of the year and possibly stretch into the next. The opportunity for Republican leadership here is ample, especially since Obama’s own budget proposal effectively punted on most issues of lasting importance. But the prospects of GOP disarray are just as huge. Even before Paul Ryan, the Republican point man on the budget, has put forward what he promises will be an ambitious, even radical plan, the Republican Study Committee is readying an even more Draconian document that would balance the federal books in ten years.

The RSC’s rogue alternabudget will be one of countless pounding headaches afflicting Boehner in the months ahead and also one of the destabilizing forces that are likely to make his tenure as speaker ever more precarious. In this increasingly polarized political era, the power of a speaker of the House has depended to a large extent on the speaker’s support from the most fervent and ideological elements of his or her caucus. Think of Nancy Pelosi, her stature rooted in the enthusiasm and loyalty of the left. Or think of Gingrich, his stridency buoyed by his relationship to the self-styled revolutionaries of the right. These two faced internal challenges, to be sure, but they emanated not from the activist cores of their parties but from the moderate fringes, so to speak. That base of support lent their speakerships a stability (though in Gingrich’s case only at the start, before his personal foibles got the better of him) that undergirded their effectiveness.

None of this is true of Boehner. His support within his caucus is real enough, but it comes from the older guard; the challenges he faces come from the passionate, hot-eyed cadres that define the new Republican Party. There’s a chance, I’ll admit, that the speaker can turn this situation to his advantage. That his inability to control his unruly tea-party cohort can be used to give him leverage in negotiations over the budget, the debt ceiling, and much else. You could argue, in fact, that this is just what has happened in the current brouhaha. But with those furies raging all around him, his margin for error will be minuscule; the line he’ll have to walk will be fine. And now it appears that if Boehner stumbles, his top lieutenant may not be there to help him up, but instead to trample over him.


House Dividing