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Who’s Afraid of John Boehner?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner (left), rules the House Republican Conference without the carrot-and-stick style that many previous House leaders successfully employed. Some in his party feel the lack of consequences for stepping out of line have made the party more difficult to gather on key issues.

During his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, Boehner himself acknowledged the challenges that his style of leadership brings.

"This is not a majority full of Members willing to trade their votes away for the promise of a pork-barrel project. ... I make no apologies for this. Yes, things are harder. But I wouldn't have it any other way," Boehner said.

Signs of strain have been building for months. Conservatives have repeatedly and openly defied him over the debt limit, spending levels and a payroll tax cut measure. And Boehner this month saw his signature policy plan a fundamental reworking of how the federal government pays for transportation and infrastructure projects collapse in the face of widespread, and very public, rank-and-file opposition.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel acknowledged the often-messy conflicts that are a byproduct of his style but argued it is simply a result of the institution working the way it should.

"Since Boehner became Speaker, we've never failed to pass anything we needed to pass. There's hemming and hawing, and it's not always pretty. But we never said it would be pretty," Steel said, noting that Boehner "has been in the House for 20 years. He knows that snapping and publicly taking people's heads off is not the way you build a lasting majority."

"We've chosen not to run the House with an iron first because that's not good for the institution and that's not good for the country," he added.

Indeed, Boehner has purposefully eschewed the sorts of aggressive control that have been used by previous Speakers. With few exceptions, his strategy for managing his Conference throughout his speakership has been simple. First, leadership has spent weeks, even months, holding listening sessions to educate Members on a particular issue in advance of a legislative fight.

Then leaders lay out a proposal, often based on what Boehner and his team have determined is the most conservative version of a bill that can be pushed past the Senate.

Typically, his Conference has initially rejected that approach, forcing Boehner back to the drawing board and resulting in a more conservative position.

Then, after a period of fuming by lawmakers, Boehner will bring his Members back together, explain that the Senate will not accept their "principled" measure and will bring a majority of his Conference around to backing a measure that is far closer to his original plan.

And he has had success with that approach. Despite initial opposition from conservatives, Boehner has successfully guided the debt ceiling, several continuing resolutions and a payroll tax holiday bill that included an extension of unemployment insurance, something that has been deeply unpopular with conservatives.

The problem for Boehner is that this strategy has become increasingly threadbare. While Republicans ultimately came around to a continuing resolution within a few days a year ago, each successive battle has taken more and more time weeks in the case of the debt ceiling and more than a month between his Conference balking at a payroll tax holiday bill in December and its ultimate support of the legislation in
February.

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