Debt ceiling crisis testing Boehner’s leadership with Tea Party in his midst

WASHINGTON – During his first year in office, former president Ronald Reagan famously had this to say when he finally managed to get a major piece of legislation through U.S. Congress: “I feel like I’ve just crapped a pineapple.”

It appears John Boehner was having his Ronald Reagan moment on Thursday as he attempted to bring to heel the rebel Tea Party members of his Republican caucus and get a debt reduction bill through the House of Representatives aimed at averting a potential financial calamity next week for the United States.

“The bill’s not perfect,” Boehner told a news conference Thursday. “I’ve never said it was perfect. Nobody in my caucus believes it’s perfect. But what this bill reflects is a sincere, honest effort to end this crisis in a bipartisan way.”

That wasn’t good enough, apparently, for some House Republicans. The vote was scheduled to be held Thursday evening but was repeatedly delayed, then postponed until Friday, when Boehner failed to secure the 217 votes he needed to ensure passage.

Story continues below


House passage of the bill doesn’t technically mean much given Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has said the Democrats controlling the upper chamber will vote it down and instead promote his own proposals to slash the country’s US$14.3 trillion debt. The White House has also threatened to veto the Republican bill.

But the bill _ and whether it lives or dies _ represents the biggest test of Boehner’s leadership since he ascended to the top job last November, when Republicans took back control of the House with dozens of anti-tax Tea Party adherents in their midst who have demanded mammoth cuts to government spending and rail against raising the U.S. debt ceiling.

Even if the bill passes but the Senate snubs it, Boehner’s legislation could form part of a final bill that incorporates both the House and Senate plans. Boehner’s plan would increase the debt limit by up to US$900 billion while cutting the same amount in spending over the next decade.

“If he wins passage of this plan and the final version resembles his proposals, he comes out far ahead,” John Pitney, a former Republican House aide who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California, said in an interview on Thursday.

“He will have shown, on the one hand, that he can deal with a Democratic president and on the other hand, he can advance conservative causes. If not, he has a big problem. If there’s a default, the danger is that the public will blame him and that will be a very serious setback for the party.”

Boehner, an Ohio congressman, has been grappling with the new Tea Party element of his party for months, often with little success. Prominent Tea Party activists have recently begun calling openly for his ouster.

It seems Boehner, usually a laid-back gladhander, finally snapped on Wednesday, when he reportedly eviscerated the rebels in his caucus, ordering them to “get your ass in line” and back his debt reduction plan before the U.S. Treasury runs out of money next week.

By mid-day Thursday, he was reportedly inviting Republicans into his Capitol Hill office and reverting to his characteristic soft sell. Those attempts will begin anew on Friday.

“All indications are that he’s using persuasion, negotiation, he’s talking, he’s listening, he’s not pushing, he’s not forcing,” says Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University of America and author of “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.”

“And those are Boehner’s strengths. He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t often use tactics that are aggressive. In the rare event that he does get aggressive, like he did on Wednesday, he’s strategic about it. He’s also done a good job getting other members in the House who agree with his approach to help him out with the freshmen, and that’s smart.”

Some Tea Party-supported newcomers seemed to be receptive, suggesting earlier Thursday they intended to back Boehner’s bill as the Aug. 2 default deadline swiftly approaches.

“Today is important because this freshmen class is coming together to get around a proposal, get around an idea,” said Wisconsin’s Sean Duffy.

“Is this as big as we wanted to go? Heck, no. We wanted to go bigger. We ran on going bigger, but this is the only proposal on the table that accomplishes the goals we set out to do.”

The job of Speaker is difficult at the best of times. American congressional history is rife with tales of House Speakers pulling out all the stops as they attempt to convince their members to support legislation _ threats, badgering, pledges of top congressional committee jobs and even promises of so-called earmarks that would fund projects in their districts and better their chances of re-election.

But Boehner is dealing with 60 Tea Party newcomers who rail against such “Washington as usual” tactics. Earmarks are now banned. And some have suggested the freshmen don’t respond well to reason, with Arizona Sen. John McCain deriding his new colleagues as “Tea Party hobbits” this week for their obstinacy during the debt ceiling crisis.

Not since Newt Gingrich has a Speaker faced such a rough road, says Pitney.

“Gingrich came to office in 1994 claiming to be revolutionary and then found that some of his members were much more revolutionary than he was,” he recalled.

“He had a difficult time reaching a budget agreement with Bill Clinton and that resulted in a government shutdown that Republicans soon paid the price for. Boehner remembers this episode vividly; as a result he’s used Gingrich as a negative role model, the type of Speaker he does not want to be using the types of tactics he does not want to use.”

Pitney gives Boehner high marks so far in his reign as Speaker.

“So far he’s doing well given the constraints under which he’s working, including the immensity of the deficit and the strong feelings about how to deal with it within his caucus. He has to take the Tea Party seriously, but on the other hand, he has to reach some kind of agreement with a Democratic president and Senate, and if he’s able to do that, he will have passed a very significant test.”