Those who spent New Year’s Day following the twists and turns of the fiscal cliff legislation were probably surprised that it passed the House by a robust 257-167 margin. Actually, it was never in doubt that the bill would sail through the House. What was in doubt was whether Speaker John Boehner would let it come up for a vote. Conservatives had hoped to pressure him into replacing it with a bill more to their liking.
In the end, Boehner did the right thing: When a big House majority is behind a piece of legislation on an urgent national priority, it should come to a vote. Holding up an otherwise surefire vote to appease an extreme conservative faction would have been a misuse of the rules. Sadly, such procedural hold-ups are business as usual in Congress these days, but Boehner deserves at least a little recognition for not carrying the practice to suicidal extremes.
Alas, his willingness to put country ahead of party may have left him in some jeopardy among his fellow Republicans. Only 84 House Republicans joined Boehner in supporting a bill that extended the Bush tax cuts for more than 98 percent of taxpayers; a far larger number — 151 — voted no. Today, GOP House members will meet to choose their leader for the incoming Congress, and some conservatives are hoping that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who voted against the fiscal-cliff compromise, will challenge Boehner for the speakership.
For placing ideological purity over compromise, and a willingness to use procedural mechanisms to gum up Congress in order to get his way, Cantor would be a poor choice. Americans who want a more cooperative approach should hope that Boehner prevails, and continues his recent efforts to keep Tea Party extremists out of key committee assignments.
At 63, Boehner remains something of a mystery man. He grew up with 11 siblings in a two-bedroom house in Cincinnati and has stressed a kind of pay-as-you-go conservatism through his 22-year House career. But as the GOP has galloped further to the right, embracing an all-or-nothing approach on issues from taxes to gun control, Boehner has been both a perpetrator and a victim. He’s failed to get much leverage against the Tea Party wing of the GOP, while it has thwarted his efforts to reach a career-capping “grand bargain” with President Obama, achieving historic spending cuts in exchange for higher taxes on the rich.
Sometimes, as in the current flap over his “f-bomb” aimed at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the White House this week, Boehner has come across as the nervous guy caught in the middle. But he has a sense of responsibility for the country and the institution of Congress that many of his colleagues lack. Given the alternatives, he deserves reelection as speaker.