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Roll Call

Who’s Afraid of John Boehner?

Speaker’s Approach to Leading Unruly GOP Starting to Wear Thin

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.

With internally divisive fights over religion and the budget looming, Speaker John Boehner's leadership is showing increasing signs of wear and tear, according to GOP lawmakers who warn that his often laissez-faire approach has encouraged dissension and open defiance among the rank and file.

Since taking the gavel, the Ohio Republican has explicitly pursued an approach to leadership that rejects the traditional top-down, carrot-and-stick approach of former Speakers, such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in favor of a more hands-off style.

But that decision has come at a cost to Boehner. While his continued leadership of the party is not in doubt, in multiple interviews his colleagues said the Speaker's desire to use a more open approach has made shepherding his raucous Conference increasingly difficult.

Boehner is facing growing resistance from moderates over his plan to bring legislation to the floor as part of the fight over the Obama administration's contraception insurance rule. He faces an even more difficult challenge of dealing with conservatives who are demanding a new round of cuts as part of this year's budget resolution that would work at cross purposes with last summer's debt deal, which already set spending levels.

And Republicans said they are concerned things are about to get a whole lot messier, potentially unnecessarily so.

His leadership leads "to a climate ... [of] 'Eh, who cares. What's he going to do to me?'" one Republican lawmaker said, adding that at some point Members will simply say, "Sorry, we're not going back to that well."

A second Republican said Boehner's style is not bad in and of itself but is simply ill-suited to a Conference that is disinclined to accept traditional compromises and the give-and-take that are the hallmarks of a legislative body.

"In any other era, he'd be doing an amazing job," this Republican said.

One GOP lawmaker who has worked closely with Boehner on some of the more high-profile fights of the past year agreed.

"He's got a very open style of leadership, and I think that encourages people to sometimes talk openly and in public," leading to breakdowns like the current one over the transportation funding bill, the lawmaker said.

Democrats were far harsher.

"In some ways, I think John Boehner is the weakest Speaker in living memory, and I don't mean that as a partisan comment. The reason that's true isn't so much because of some innate defect of his, it is because he oversees an unstable majority," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

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.

And then came the transportation debacle. Boehner had touted the measure, which would link energy development revenues to highway spending, as a restructuring of how government works, and it was designed to bring conservatives on board with federal transportation spending.

Conservatives balked. And moderates including such staunch Boehner allies such as Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) openly and publicly defied him over various aspects of the measure.

When asked about Boehner's inability to control his Conference, particularly on the transportation bill, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said bluntly, "That's because there's no earmarks" to use as enticements.

West, who has been openly critical of leadership several times since coming to Congress, said he has never felt any pressure from Boehner to fall in line. "No, nobody pressures me," West said.

And for the Florida Republican, that's not a bad thing. "This is a good thing. People can come up here and really represent the interests of their constituents" and not simply toe leadership's line, he argued.

Others, however, see Boehner's hesitance in enforcing discipline on his Members as far more problematic.

Traditionally in leadership, "there's the carrot, and there's the stick. And there's no stick" with Boehner, a veteran Republican lawmaker said Tuesday.

This lawmaker noted that Boehner has not always been shy about throwing his weight around, saying he "elbowed out" now-Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in his ascendancy to Majority Leader and later forced the hand of appropriators when he brought an earmark ban to the floor of the House over their objections.

"That was a ballsy move. ... It's been a long time," the Republican said.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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