John Boehner: Voice of the Beltway

Can Speaker John Boehner’s back-room pragmatism see him through the Republican party’s sea change?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich, the ideological warrior who gleefully led his Republican troops over the barricades to shut down the government in the 1990s. Rather, he is known for wheeling and dealing, making the kind of political compromises that the new generation of hard-liners in his Republican caucus believe they were elected to defy.

Related story: U.S. government votes to end government shutdown

The youngest of 12, Boehner grew up mopping floors in his family’s Ohio tavern, and worked his way through college as a night-shift janitor. Since his election 23 years ago, Boehner acquired a taste for fine wine and golf—sometimes enjoyed in the company of President Barack Obama while the two men attempted to negotiate a “grand bargain” over America’s long-term finances back in 2011. Such back-room pragmatism is growing in short supply in his Republican caucus, and has earned Boehner derision as a “Beltway hack”—but it may prove to be indispensible to the machinery of government.

Since the Republicans took over the House in 2010 on a Tea Party-backed wave, Boehner has been watching his back. He knows how caucus plots work: In 1997, he had been part of an attempted coup against Gingrich.

Boehner’s failed fiscal bargain with Obama had some some tax increases as a concession to Democrats, along with the major spending cuts craved by Republicans. The talks fell apart after the small-government purists in his caucus—who had pledged to never raise any taxes, ever—smelled a traitor. Tea Partiers openly called for his ouster.

But as Boehner gave in to their demands for a government shutdown this month, the hard-liners embraced him. Shutdown leader Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas praised Boehner as “courageous.” Tea Party-backed Texas Congressman Steve Stockman said Boehner had “showed true leadership” and “unified the party.” Moderate Repubicans asked Boehner to allow them to vote with Democrats to end the shutdown. He resisted.

“I think he has had the most difficult job of any Speaker of recent memory because the Republican party is going through a massive metamorphosis right now,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, one of the conservative activist groups that helped elect Tea Party-aligned lawmakers—and whose support helps the backbenchers “remain independent of the party leadership.” For Boehner, this means less leverage over his members. “You used to have to rely on party infrastructure back home and here in D.C. to get your message out, to get on the right [congressional] committee. That has all changed,” says Brandon.

The spectacle of the shutdown has been in part the story of Boehner’s struggle to adapt to the new environment. Whatever support Boehner gained among the “Liberty caucus” by enabling the shutdown, he faced losing it again by compromising with Democrats to bring it to an end. His resolve was tested two weeks into the shutdown when moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came to a bipartisan compromise to end the standoff: it would reopen the government until Jan. 15, extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority into February, and launch bipartisan talks on long-term finances.

But even with a possible government default mere days away, Boehner did not allow a vote on the Senate’s breakthrough. Instead, he sought to exhaust all options before considering the bipartisan deal. He floated an alternative plan, including more changes to Obama’s health care law; it outraged Democrats but wasn’t enough to get conservative support. As the U.S. government flirted with default, and the Republicans’ approval ratings sank ever lower, it was clear Boehner’s mating dance with his caucus had come at a price. “His actions have kept him in office,” said Brookings Institution congressional scholar Thomas Mann. “But at great cost to his party and his country.”

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