People looking for clues about the current strength and future prospects of John A. Boehner’s speakership should come to one conclusion: He can no longer count on Republicans taking one for the team.
There’s evidence in Tuesday’s debt limit vote to support the view that he pulled off a neat sleight of hand to shield his conference from another self-inflicted wound. But there’s at least as much evidence that Boehner’s control over the outcome was much more tenuous than it could have been — or should have been if his aim is to quell the speculation about his future in the House.
Soon after 28 Republicans joined 193 Democrats to pass legislation lifting the debt ceiling for the next year without any conditions, my colleagues Matt Fuller and Emma Dumain reported this fascinating fact : It was the fewest number of votes from a majority for a bill that passed the House since at least 1991.
That would appear to be the final nail in the strategic coffin for the increasingly sidestepped "Hastert Rule," which dictates that every bill GOP leadership puts to a vote must muster a majority from the majority.
In the few hours before the roll call, but after Boehner announced his tactical surrender in the four-year debt limit war, he made clear he wasn’t out to run up the score for his position. Instead, he said he would revert to the traditional way of handling the politically problematic need to increase Treasury borrowing: The president’s party would be expected to pull most of the weight. “We’ll let the Democrats put the votes up,” the speaker said. “We’ll put a minimum number of votes up to get it passed.”
Boehner did almost exactly that. Because three seats are vacant and 10 members were missing, 212 was the magic number to assure victory. He rounded up nine more than that, a modest cushion in case more than the expected number of conservative Democrats decided to vote “no.” (In the end, only two did so: John Barrow of Georgia and Jim Matheson of Utah.)
The precision of the execution suggested two things.
The GOP high command proved it can count when facing a high-stakes crossroads. Dropping the initial plan — pairing the debt hike with a rollback in last year’s cut to pension benefits for working-age military retirees — showed they had had taken an accurate temperature of their conference. It also tamped down some of the trash talk about the leadership team needing a course in remedial math, which blossomed after the farm bill was decisively defeated last July.
And by allowing seven out of eight members on his side to vote with the fiscally unrealistic, no-more-debt-under-any-circumstances camp, and getting what he wanted anyway, Boehner found the best possible silver lining for another very messy situation, with junior tea party malcontents once again unabashedly dictating the terms to their nominal boss.
But, at the same time, Tuesday's close call laid bare a worrisome lesson for the speaker. It's clear people won't walk that plank for the good of the party unless they absolutely have to. Put another way, Boehner has a perilously small cadre of unflinching loyalists, members who will volunteer to fight his necessary-evil battles even when they’re not recruited.
We don't know who Boehner importuned, or who turned him down. But the vote tally reveals he was largely spurned by four categories of members who — under the old school ways of doing business — would have voted with him en masse: leadership, committee chairmen, moderates and retirees.
If they had all backed Boehner, the GOP "yes" number would have more than doubled, to better than a quarter of the troops. But that’s not what happened.
Although three other top leaders were with Boehner — Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam — the other seven lawmakers who attend leadership meetings opposed him. And only two have obvious political-preservation excuses. GOP Policy Chairman James Lankford, who hopes to ward off a primary on his right as he seeks Oklahoma’s open Senate seat, and Steve Southerland II, who has the class of 2010’s spot at the table but sees his Florida re-election race only barely tilting his way.
Of the 20 committee chairmen, 15 voted "no" — although none of them currently has a credible Democratic challenger and only a couple are facing so much as nettlesome opposition in their primaries. Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin was the most prominent among them, not only because of his national profile but also because he’s always near the top when lists are made of potential future GOP speakers. Spurning Boehner on the debt hike is either a signal he really doesn’t aspire to the job — or else won’t expect his own team to live by the notion that sometimes following the leader is a part of leading. (Either that, or he really does aspire to a job on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.)
GOP moderates, defined as members who voted with President Barack Obama at least one-fifth of the time last year, were no better than split. Eight voted for the bill, seven against.
And of the 10 who had announced retirement plans , theoretically absolving themselves of having to make political calculations before any future votes, only four backed the debt ceiling increase. (That number grew to five on Wednesday, because it turns out "yes" voter Gary G. Miller gave up on his underdog quest to hold his seat in California for a ninth term.)
The most interesting cohort may have been those House Republicans who attended Tuesday night’s state dinner for French President Francois Hollande. Three of four sided with Boehner (who routinely declines such invitations): Cantor, Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers and Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce.
The notable exception, once again, was Ryan.