In Defense of John Boehner – By Yosef Stein

John_BoehnerHouse Speaker John Boehner has had a rough few weeks. After voters in November turned the Senate over to the Republicans and handed Boehner the biggest GOP House majority in decades, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to “get Congress going again” and end the hyperpartisanship and manufactured crises that mark the last several years, when Democrats controlled the Senate. Republican voters were genuinely optimistic that with dual majorities for the first time in a while, the Republicans in Congress would be able to govern effectively. On November 20, however, just two weeks after the GOP sweep of competitive races across the country, President Obama made a declaration which would come to dominate the early agenda of the new Republican Congress. Promising to “make our immigration system more fair and more just,” the president issued an executive order that would shield up to five million undocumented immigrants from deportation, sparking outrage from Republicans who maintained that Obama had overstepped his constitutional boundaries. As conservatives were quick to point out, the president himself had asserted on no fewer than 22 previous occasions that he did not have the authority to take such unilateral action. Of course, GOP hardliners in Congress demanded that their leadership forcefully retaliate.

That was when Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price had a brainstorm. Congress would soon have to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government including the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with the enforcement of immigration policy, among other things. If Republicans would fund the entire government except for the DHS, Price reasoned, Obama’s executive action would not be able to take effect. This concept was refined by Boehner’s leadership team, and they convinced their rank-and-file to pass a resolution funding the entire government until September 2015 except for the DHS, which would be extended only until February 27. Republican leaders said that with control of both houses of Congress in the new year, they would have more leverage to gut Obama’s amnesty. There was just one problem. The Republicans had no plan. There was never any chance of stopping the executive order, because Obama would ultimately hold veto power over whatever strategy the GOP would pursue, assuming they could even jam it through a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. Yet the GOP forged ahead with their non-plan, entering the year confident that everything would turn out fine.

Obviously, they were wrong. The GOP majority ignored the looming DHS deadline through December and the first half of January, waiting over a month to begin discussing their options. As it turned out, there wasn’t much to discuss. Conservatives in the House insisted on passing a bill that would fund the entire DHS except for the president’s executive action, which they passed along party lines on January 14. When the GOP-led Senate tried to put the House bill on the floor, though, the Democrats filibustered it four times, not even allowing it to be introduced for amending. With only days remaining before the December 27 deadline and no obvious solution to the crisis, McConnell blinked. He agreed to put a “clean” funding bill on the Senate floor, absent of provisions to defund Obama’s amnesty, in exchange for Democrats agreeing to vote on a separate bill authored by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would gut the president’s actions. That agreement is merely symbolic, as Collins’ bill lacks the votes necessary to overcome a certain Democratic filibuster of its final version. McConnell’s announcement and the Senate’s subsequent 68-31 passage of a clean funding bill took Boehner by surprise, as the Senate Majority Leader had not consulted with him prior to waving the white flag.

It is entirely possible- even probable- that in Speaker Boehner’s ideal world he would have loved to pass the Senate’s bill without immigration riders and fully fund the DHS, which really should not be jeopardized over partisan politics anyway. However, John Boehner does not live in an ideal world; he lives in the utterly dysfunctional world of the 2015 House Republican caucus, hijacked by a handful of suicidal hardliners with no concept of the consequences of their actions. And Boehner was fully aware that a misstep on the toxic issue of immigration- the same issue that may have cost former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor his political life last year- could just as easily send the Speaker into early retirement. In fact, Boehner recently saw his leadership come under attack when in early January more than two dozen House conservatives voted against him for Speaker. He barely survived that incident, garnering just 216 votes in the 435-member chamber. He certainly did not want to give the conservative hardliners in his conference anything else to be upset at him about, so he refused to take up the Senate’s DHS funding bill, opting instead to pass a 3-week stopgap funding extension. This would allow the House to go into conference with the Senate and try to hammer out some sort of compromise. But the radical elements within Boehner’s conference weren’t interested. On Friday morning, 52 conservative Republicans voted with 172 Democrats to derail the stopgap measure, shocking Boehner and his leadership team, who were certain that they had the votes to pass the bill. While Boehner and his leadership team filed off the House floor in humiliation, conservative House members celebrated nearby with pizza, sushi and alcohol. Later that afternoon House Democrats joined most Republicans to pass a one-week DHS extension on a 357-60 vote.

Now the House has until Friday to act. Predictably, the Republicans have no way out of this whole debacle except to pass a clean funding bill. Even the fifty-two Republicans who effectively voted on Friday to shut down the DHS are not actually advocating such a strategy, and it is clear that Boehner will not allow a funding lapse to occur. The GOP will have no choice but to pass a clean bill by the end of the week, and Boehner will once again come under fire from conservatives and liberals alike for his poor leadership and his supposed irresponsibility for allowing this crisis to play out. However, Boehner is not at fault. As matter of fact, I would argue that John Boehner’s steady and intelligent guidance of his caucus is the only thing preserving Washington’s functionality right now (to whatever extent it’s functioning).

Suppose the House Freedom Caucus, an anti-establishment group of the most conservative House members, was able to select the Speaker of the House. They might select Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling, the powerful conservative chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, or Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the House Freedom Caucus chairman. Perhaps they would select Daniel Webster, the seasoned Floridian who received twelve of the 25 Republican votes cast against Boehner in January. But what would Speaker Hensarling, Jordan or Webster do different from Boehner? The truth is that there aren’t a whole lot of options. Of course, they could shut down the DHS because they’re upset at President Obama, but that would play right into Democrats’ hands because it would only serve to harm the Republican Party in the eyes of voters. Even House conservatives claim that they do not want to shut down the department. Another option is to pass a stopgap bill and try to reach a compromise with Senate Democrats before the deadline. That is precisely what John Boehner tried to do with his three-week extension proposal, only to be thwarted by the conservative kamikaze caucus, to whom “compromise” is a dirty word. The third option is to take Mitch McConnell’s path, capitulate to the Democrats, and pass a clean bill. Obviously, the conservatives do not want to take that path either. So what exactly do they want? House conservatives claim that they don’t want a DHS shutdown, but by rejecting any chance of compromise, that is really the only option they leave on the table. As an editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal asked, how can any leader be expected to legislate with “a majority that is held hostage to the whim of 50 members who care more about appeasing talk radio than achieving conservative victories?”

Enter John Boehner. The House Speaker saw as early as November of last year that there was only one way to get out of the impending mess with the government fully funded and his speakership- necessary for the stability of the GOP caucus- intact. First, he championed a plan that would isolate the funding battle to the DHS only by extending all other funding until September. Next, he ensured that the DHS funding deadline would be well after the Speakership election so that he and his leadership team would not have to start discussing DHS strategy until he had already been reelected Speaker. Boehner knew that ultimately the GOP challenge to Obama’s immigration policy would end in defeat, but he supported it from the outset so that he could control it and prevent House conservatives from actually causing a shutdown. A lesser Speaker would not have had the foresight to isolate the immigration fight, nor would he have known how to balance the unrealistic demands of his right flank with the reality that the GOP cannot afford to be responsible for shutting down the DHS. But Boehner did. He went along with House conservatives as far as he could, for the sake of both Republican unity and the survival of his Speakership. He tried to be even more conservative than the GOP leadership in the Senate, insisting on a short-term deal that would set up negotiations with Democrats- but he was foiled, ironically, by the same conservatives he was trying to appease.

When Boehner is forced later this week to hold a vote on a clean DHS funding bill, he will be able to honestly maintain that he did all he could to fight the president’s executive amnesty. He will also have preserved some semblance of GOP unity in the House, at least much more so than there would be in the event of a shutdown or if Republican leadership surrendered without putting up a fight. And for all the flak he will undoubtedly sustain from conservative politicians and talk show hosts, John Boehner will be able to fall asleep at night knowing that thanks to his steady, professional leadership the Department of Homeland Security is funded, Republican infighting is not out of control, and the GOP has not been scarred by another government shutdown.

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  1. This piece is right under the Netanyahu speech, which Boehner orchestrated, why is there no mention of the biggest news he’s involved in now?!

  2. After reading this article, I have one question, why in the world isn’t Boehner running for President? Based on this article one would assume that he is the most responsible person in the whole Washington DC right now!

  3. John Boehner is certainly a man who puts his country first. However to ignore the fact that a big part of his agenda is to undermine Obama is not giving the full picture.

  4. It seems that Boehner has done as well as he can tactically speaking, but what the Republicans seem to need to need more – if such a thing is possible – is a strategic leader who can both map out a long term electoral strategy to realize the conservatives’ objectives and re-direct their energies into more practical pursuits of these shared goals. Certainly, these mini-dramas only help to divert the public’s eye from Obama’s radicalism to the supposed extremism of the GOP; and that is not at all helpful to the cause.

  5. I am enjoying this new political analysis series by Yosef Stein very much. I find his perspective to be refreshing and on target. I would love to hear what he has to say on topics more directly of interest to the Jewish world. What would he say about the Netanyahu/Obama relationship…?

  6. I understand the author’s picture of Boehner as the hero of the Republican party. Yet, perhaps some attention should be given to the fact that there is a reason all these teaparty people were elected- dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment. I think that must be acknowledged and addressed for the Republican party to stay healthy- and that includes the Speaker of the House.

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