WASHINGTON — Detractors on Capitol Hill derisively joke that John A. Boehner is more of an event planner than a House speaker. When Republicans meet, he can schedule the time and the place, and even decide on the food. But he has no real control over the agenda.
Boehner’s leadership has never been under more scrutiny, as his inability to harness a small band of rebellious arch-conservative Republicans has become the defining feature of Washington dysfunction, and the central thread in the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Boehner’s options are essentially what they have been since he became speaker three years ago: either appease the most confrontational members of his party and retain his gavel, or buck them and risk losing his job in a conservative coup.
With the shutdown, observers say, Boehner’s choice boiled down to this: restore government functions, but be prepared to sacrifice his job for doing so.
As the hours ticked toward midnight on Monday, Boehner chose not to pay that price.
He emerged from a 90-minute meeting with Republicans in the Capitol basement and vowed — despite expressing his own distaste for the showdown strategy just months before — to continue waging a fight against President Obama’s health care law, even though it guaranteed a government shutdown.
“It’s pretty clear that what our members want is fairness for the American people,” he said, flanked by his leadership team, in a hallway crowded with reporters. His words were firm, even if his delivery was not exactly fiery.
‘Clearly, the ground underneath him shifted after the 2010 election.’Steven LaTourette, former congressman
With the shutdown unresolved, Washington is simultaneously lurching toward an even bigger threat, over the debt ceiling and a potential government default that economists say could trigger another recession and global debt-market meltdown. It remains uncertain whether Boehner views that deadline as an end point to the current standoff, or as yet another leverage point to advance conservative political goals.
Lawmakers on both sides describe Boehner, one of the most charming people in Congress, as an unlikely candidate to engage in ideologically motivated brinksmanship. Critics do not so much despise him as pity him, a back-handed insult for a man who comes just after the vice president in the line of succession. But after Tuesday’s government shutdown, and the specter of months of cascading fiscal showdowns that are likely to follow, some have begun to ask more assertively why he did not seize the moment for the broader good.
“You need a speaker who thinks of himself or herself as the head of the legislative branch, not as a party leader,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who says other recent speakers were afflicted by the same problem.
“Speakers have a responsibility to the country at large,” said Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University who wrote the book “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.” “We’re now reaching a point where the speaker is putting that responsibility second to the party, or even a small segment of the party.”
Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, denied in an e-mail that Boehner was putting his political survival ahead of the country. He said it’s “about doing the right thing for the American people” and that Boehner draws “strong support from the House Republican Conference.”
“Speaker Boehner, and House Republicans, are listening to the American people, who oppose the president’s health care law, and want us to deal with other serious issues like the debt, deficits, and getting our economy moving, and creating jobs,” Steel wrote.
Yet as the funding stalemate lingers, the questions grow ever larger over whether Boehner, a back-slapping former plastics salesman, has the skills to govern in the current climate. Defenders usually say he should be graded on a curve, given the difficulty in dealing with the 40 or 50 most conservative House members — out of 232 Republicans — who oppose most forms of authority. Others say he has ceded control to them.
Boehner’s 23 years in Congress have been a study in survival. He came as a rebel against the excesses of Democratic leadership, rose up as a leader with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s band of rabble-rousers in the 1990s, fell from House Republican leadership when Gingrich lost power, then resurfaced as a committeeman, clawing his way back to the top from the inside.
Now, the 63-year-old is trying to build a governing legacy within a caucus that fundamentally distrusts government and its institutions, including the House traditions and rules that helped Boehner rise.
One of his biggest accomplishments, before he became speaker, was the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, where he negotiated with Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts on the kind of sweeping overhaul that used to characterize Washington deal-making. It was, in some sense, as important to President George W. Bush’s domestic legacy as the health law is to Obama’s.
How different is the new House? In July, representatives voted to repeal No Child Left Behind, with Boehner’s support.
“Clearly, the ground underneath him shifted after the 2010 election,” said Steven LaTourette, a Boehner friend and former Republican congressman from Ohio who retired in 2012. “It was great news, because he got to be the speaker. But it was bad news, because he got to be the speaker.”
The newest members of Congress, the group of Republicans who gave Boehner his power, were “not really interested in governing, and I’m sure it’s got to be driving him crazy,” LaTourette said.
Their suspicion goes beyond government. Many also distrust the Republican Party and see Boehner as part of the establishment.
Boehner has often been thwarted in his attempts to use the three most important tools of a speaker’s power: reward, punishment, and persuasion.
When he took the job in 2010, he agreed to extend a ban on doling out special projects in House districts known as earmarks, which had long been used to horse-trade for votes. The process of spending government money to win political favor had also long been criticized, and removing them was a key component in the GOP campaign to regain power.
Boehner’s highest-profile effort to mete out discipline backfired. In early December, he stripped four dissidents who had voted against party leadership of their committee assignments. But rather than pull them back in line, the move emboldened them, as a host of conservative political action committees responded by heaping scorn on Boehner.
Shortly after that episode, as the nation was careering toward the “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases at the end of 2012, Boehner tried to persuade his unruly caucus of the merits of compromise.
Representative Peter King, a moderate New York Republican, said it was Boehner’s toughest moment. More than ever, Boehner needed a unified party as he faced off against Obama on a core issue separating the two parties — how much to tax the wealthy. Boehner had announced a plan to raise taxes only on those earning more than $1 million a year, a much smaller group than Obama wanted to target.
But many of Boehner’s fellow Republicans took a hard line against any tax hike.
He stood before his fellow Republicans in a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, explaining the logic of his strategy. He recited the prayer of St. Francis, a humble request for peace and forgiveness.
Tea Party Republicans were in no mood for either. They revolted, refusing to back him.
“He was basically accused by people that that would be a sell-out,” King said.
It was a humiliating defeat, as Boehner was forced to cancel a vote on his own proposal, surrendering all of his leverage to Democrats. In the end, Boehner was forced to accept a tax increase on those making $400,000 or more a year. To get it passed, Boehner was forced to rely on a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
The fiscal cliff deal was one of just three times Boehner violated the informal “Hastert Rule,” by letting the House vote on a measure without majority support among Republicans. He also broke the rule on a bill to provide funding in response to Hurricane Sandy, and to renew the Violence Against Women Act, which were also opposed by conservative factions of his party.
Representative Mike Simpson, a moderate Idaho Republican, said many Tea Party Republicans have trouble accepting basic political math: If Boehner can’t find 218 Republican votes, a majority, he will need to get support from Democrats, which makes a bill less conservative.
“They looked at me and said ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with it,’ ” Simpson said. “Well you don’t have to agree with it, it’s what happens!”
Two days after that vote, a coup attempt resulted in 12 Republican votes against him retaining his job.
That set the stage for the current shutdown fight.
Tea Party conservatives had been plotting a strategy for much of the year to use key fiscal deadlines to strip Obama’s health care law of its funding. They had tried to repeal the law, more than 40 times, often targeted at highlighting various provisions of the law or its enforcement mechanisms, and Boehner allowed that series of essentially feel-good votes.
The periodic repeal votes were a rallying cry that gave Tea Party voters the impression that the GOP was responding to their most passionate constituents, the ones who would turn against them for a more conservative alternative if they didn’t prove sufficiently antagonistic to the law.
But it was a transparent ploy meant to let off steam in the House. Democrats in the Senate and White House were never close to agreeing that Obama’s signature accomplishment should be killed.
Boehner gave no ground in a March press conference, insisting the health law should not be tied to negotiations over funding the government.
“Our goal here is to cut spending. It’s not to shut down the government,” he said. “Trying to put Obamacare on this vehicle risks shutting down the government.”
It would be only six months before he would reverse that view.
Pressure from the right grew in August. Dozens of lawmakers demanded that Boehner use a pair of fiscal deadlines — one in late September to fund the government, and a second one in mid-October to avoid a default on the nation’s loans — to gut the health care law.
Boehner seemed uncertain in his response. He promised at an Idaho fund-raiser to have a “whale of a fight” with Obama over raising the debt ceiling. But he went on to say that the fight would be about cutting the deficit, without emphasizing the health law.
Then Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor returned in early September with a proposal that would prevent a government shutdown, while still allowing House Republicans to take a nonbinding vote to pull funding from Obama’s health law.
The Tea Party and the outside interest groups that apply pressure on other lawmakers called Boehner’s plan a gimmick, and they demanded a more substantial attack on the health law.
Boehner, realizing he did not have enough Republican votes, was forced to cancel another vote.
When reporters asked him what he planned to do next, Boehner seemed exasperated.
“Do you have an idea?” he said. “They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”
Soon after that, Boehner decided to quit putting up ideas that would be blocked by his party’s rebels. Instead, he became a warrior in the fight that the Tea Party had wanted all along, over gutting the health care law.
It wasn’t pretty. Over the course of 10 days Boehner was forced to try three different versions amid Senate rejection: one stripping the law’s funding, one delaying the law for a year, and a third delaying the requirement that individuals buy health insurance.
But the anger from the Tea Party turned to cheers. The threats to remove Boehner from power would subside, at least for now.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, said in an interview Saturday, in the throes of battle with Democrats, three days before the shutdown. “This is exactly what we had hoped for.”Staff writer Michael Kranish contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.