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Boehner Finds a Successful Strategy in Failing Upwards

5 minute read

House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday yanked his plan to marry an increase in the debt ceiling with the restoration of pension cuts for retired soldiers. After failing to unify his Republican horde around some demand—any demand—that could be tied to lifting the country’s borrowing limit, he called it quits and said he’d allow a vote on a “clean” hike, without strings attached.

The headlines read “embarrassing” and “failure” and “Boehner bombs again.” But take a step back, and the fact that Boehner felt after weeks of deliberations that the best way to pass the debt ceiling was by marrying it with a measure to increase spending—albeit it offset—shows how far his conference has come in just a few short years.

Three years ago, Washington was debating the “Boehner rule,” which demanded equal amounts of cuts to offset any increase in the debt ceiling. That gambit forced the passage of the Budget Control Act, which cut $2.1 trillion in spending mostly enacted through infamous sequestration. House Republican leaders argue that while they have not since succeeded in sticking to the Boehner rule, their approach has helped moved legislation significantly to the right at a time when Democrats control the White House and the Senate.

In addition to the $2.1 trillion in cuts, House Republicans won another $38.5 billion in the 2011 budget. The December 2012 fiscal cliff agreement made permanent all of the Bush-era tax cuts except those for the wealthiest Americans—something Republicans were unable to pass when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. The 2013 budget deal held $23 billion in taxpayer savings, and an additional $23 billion in savings—including $7 billion in cuts to food stamps—were found in the farm bill signed into law by President Barack Obama last week. Republicans also won labor reforms in the 2012 Federal Aviation authorization bill, streamlined the bureaucratic approval process in the highway bill and instituted a long-term market-based interest rate for student loans in August 2013.

“We haven’t balanced the budget or saved our entitlement programs from bankruptcy because the Democrats who control the White House and Senate have no intention of doing so, but in this Democrat-run town, House Republicans have made real progress, including $2.1 trillion in spending cuts,” says Kevin Smith, a Boehner spokesman.

Of course, Republicans probably could’ve gotten more done if they’d been on the same page more often and had 218 reliable votes. But Boehner’s willingness to suffer embarrassing failures has also helped teach his motely crew of relative political neophytes the perils of those shared failures.

“It became clear after the shutdown, if they push this to the brink they’re going to lose,” says Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “Unlike 2011, where Obama had double incentives to negotiate and give them something—the economy was still so down that if you’d actually gone into default we’d have gone into serious depression and he was up for reelection—now there are no incentives and Obama can hold firm. Now, the GOP crazies will get blamed if they play with default. Plus, they all believe that the key to a bigger majority in the House and winning the Senate is that Obamacare will collapse on its own and they don’t want distractions right now. It helps Boehner that you’ve got people from radical wing of his party like Raul Labrador saying no more distractions let’s just play Obi Wan Kenobi on this.”

Four months after shutting down the government, Boehner and his conference seem to have reached an understanding, one in which he enjoys get-out-of-jail-free cards to pass legislation with the help of Democratic votes, and his ultra-conservatives get to vote against these measures and scream all they like about them. Meanwhile, Boehner’s speakership is more secure than ever, as are the seats of the 40-plus Republicans who usually help Boehner pass legislation with the Democrats.

“In those 40 or so cases, most [of those members] represent fairly marginal districts where Republicans understand that voting in a bipartisan way is an asset for electoral purposes in a general election,” says David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races. There is, Wasserman says, more pragmatism these days to House votes: “We’ve always subscribed to the notion that while Democrats can’t win the House in 2014, Republicans could lose it and what Republicans have done this week, if they pass a clean debt ceiling bill, is remove a big potential obstacle to their own electoral success this fall.”

That said, there is a limit to Boehner’s Jedi mind tricks. While Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) supports a clean-debt ceiling bill, or at least passage of one on the backs of others’ votes, he was the first to say that if Boehner actually forced immigration reform through the House this year, he should lose his speakership. “There is a hunger in the conference for bold, visionary leaders,” Labrador told Roll Call on Feb. 5. “I think you’re going to see some changes here in the House over the next year. I think that this is an opportunity for whoever wants to run for leadership to show that they have a clear vision for America.”

For all this talk, though, there are few real threats to Boehner’s speakership. After all, Boehner’s strategy of failing upwards comes at the cost of a lot of lost votes, tears and humility—not the usual recipe for a speaker’s success and not a terribly appealing job advertisement.

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