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Speaker John Boehner’s drive to decentralize power in the House could come back to haunt him now that he needs control of his Conference to push a compromise debt limit deal — the most important legislation of his Speakership — through the chamber.
Since the start of the 112th Congress, the Ohio Republican has made reforming how the House works a central component of his tenure. He turned over control of legislation to committee chairmen, chose a Whip in Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) who works with — rather than hammers — Members on votes, and has been willing to take significant defeats to allow the sometimes rancorous chamber to “work its will.”
In February, Boehner said his decision came about because of “20 years of watching leaders tighten down the process, tighten down the process, tighten down the process, trying to reconfigure all the rules in order for them to pass their agenda, the leader’s agenda. That is not my job.”
In theory, the open debates on the floor, the wrangling over the continuing resolution and a series of educational efforts should have resulted in a Conference which, while strongly conservative, still recognized that legislating at its core requires a certain amount of compromise and accepting the best deal possible.
Instead, a vocal portion of Boehner’s rank and file has, as one aide put it, “allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good” while breeding distrust for leadership.
Now, with the economy potentially facing a massive meltdown if the United States defaults on its debt, Boehner is faced with the stark reality that several key players in his Conference feel that even considering to raise the nation’s debt limit is the most compromise they are willing to make.
“Compromise? The compromise is the Cut, Cap and Balance Act,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee. “That’s the compromise.”
Jordan noted that conservatives agreed to vote on that bill, which includes a debt limit increase contingent on passage of a balanced budget amendment by both chambers.
Others were even more openly critical of leadership’s handling of the debt limit negotiations.
“I think they’ve negotiated too much with the other side. They’ve engaged in weeks of private little daily negotiations when it was clear the other side wasn’t serious,” Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said.
“I don’t know strategically how strong we’ve been. I wish they had gone to the president three weeks ago and said, ‘Here’s what we want, here’s our cellphone numbers’ and walked away. They didn’t do that, and now we’re down to the end. It’s clear what the Republican rank and file want, which is structural reform,” Walsh added.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) argued that conservatives in the Conference are willing to compromise, but only to a certain extent. “If it means finding a way to reform the tax code, I think the Conference, especially the freshmen, are all for that,” Labrador said. “But if it’s just raising taxes, then that’s just not going to happen.”
There is also lingering resentment over the CR debate, House Republicans said, which has added to their unwillingness to support a negotiated settlement to the debt debate.
“It was this way during the CR fight, it’s this way now and again the other side clearly doesn’t get it,” Walsh said.
That mistrust, coupled with the fact that Boehner does not wield an iron fist like many of his predecessors, has hurt his ability to step in, take control of the situation and deliver a deal, Republicans said privately.
Boehner “is absolutely in a weaker position” because Members won’t negotiate, a moderate Republican lawmaker said Tuesday.
How Boehner moves forward remains far from certain. His leadership team has been discussing alternatives that could be pursued after the Senate defeats the Cut, Cap and Balance bill this week.
Republicans said that regardless of what Boehner does, he and his top lieutenants will have to avoid even the appearance of being divided if they are going to bring their Conference along on a deal. “No matter what the next step is, it will be crucial to have a unified leadership team standing together,” a senior aide said.
Several Republicans agreed, saying splits between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) — who abruptly walked away from earlier debt limit talks and had expressed reservations about Boehner’s talks with President Barack Obama — compromised Boehner’s ability to manage and have opened the door for conservative agitators to push the Conference to the right.
But many Republicans are worried it will take an adverse market reaction before the rank and file have a “come to Jesus” moment and accept a negotiated settlement on the debt limit.
“As we near closer to the Aug. 2 deadline, we are closer to Armageddon. But leadership can’t sell that argument to our Conference. What has to happen is constituents will need to pressure their Members in order for the Members to believe the consequences to not raising the debt ceiling exist,” a veteran GOP aide warned.
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.