By David Lightman
Courtesy MCT Campus
John Boehner emerged last week’s down-to-the-wire budget battle with a fresh reputation as a House speaker able to unify a feisty band of Republicans and emerge with one heck of a spending-cut deal.
Congress this week plans to vote on the agreement to cut $38.5 billion in spending over the next six months. President Barack Obama on Saturday signed into law a stopgap measure that keeps the government running through Thursday.
Boehner was a key architect of the deals and was praised for holding out for bigger cuts than most expected.
“He’s done a superior job,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who in 2008 challenged Boehner for the Republican leadership post.
But stature in Washington can be fleeting. Boehner faces new tests this week, as lawmakers work out details of the last-minute Friday night agreement. And he is criticized in some quarters as too beholden to conservative tea-party supporters and by others for not going even further in cutting the budget.
Still, by most accounts, the Ohio Republican did well, holding out until the final hours for big spending cuts while avoiding the first government shutdown since 1996.
Boehner’s new lofty standing is different from the expectations of just a few months ago. The Republicans took control of the House in January with a mandate to significantly shrink the government, repeal the 2010 health-care law and drastically slash spending.
Diehard conservatives have rarely been big Boehner fans, despite his consistently conservative voting record. His affability didn’t suggest the kind of toughness they wanted.
They remembered how, as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006, he won respect from Democrats and worked with the their nemesis, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to push President George W. Bush’s education plans through Congress.
During the last budget talks, Democrats attacked Boehner from a different direction, saying he was tethered to the tea-party movement, which helped elect dozens of Republicans last year. Because the tea party helped defeat some incumbents for renomination, or push some mainstream Republicans out of races, Democrats said Boehner feared it.
“House Republicans are all afraid of losing to a bunch of nuts in the primaries,’ said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Judson Phillips, founder and chief executive of Tea Party Nation, offered some evidence for that view, saying he’d like someone to challenge the speaker in a primary. In spite of Boehner’s success in keeping Republicans united, more spending cuts are needed to trim the $1.65 trillion deficit expected this year, he said.
“You’re just rearranging the ice cubes on the Titanic,” Phillips said.
Today, the 241-member House Republican caucus is loosely divided into two camps. One includes many of the 87 freshmen elected in November and veteran conservatives who form the Republican Study Committee.
They’re eager to repeal the health-care law, among other things, and the budget deal doesn’t do that. Boehner got a pledge that the Senate will vote on cutting off funds to implement the law, which is sure to fail in the Democratic-dominated Senate.
Giving in on that issue this early in the congressional session, said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was a big mistake.
“I don’t see another place where we can get the leverage we had,” King said. “There were cards to be played.”
But there’s another group of House Republicans, generally veterans well-schooled in the art of the deal. They are close Boehner allies and have often acted as calming influences.
They include Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. Asked what he would say to tea-party activists, he smiled and said, “Welcome.”
Boehner, according to most accounts, has been able to bring the party together with virtually no dissension.
Boehner kept the freshmen in line, meeting regularly with them, explaining the nuances of the legislative process.
“He’s been open with us, and accessible,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. “I think the speaker’s not beholden to anybody, except to the right thing to do.”
He boosted his appeal by holding out for bigger spending cuts. He came down to $40 billion, but in negotiations with Democrats and the White House, at first would not say what number he’d settle for.
Finally, he offered $39 billion, but insisted on no funding for Planned Parenthood, implementing the health-care law and climate-change policies. Friday, only the Planned Parenthood provision survived; Boehner said that was non-negotiable; Obama and the Democrats said their intention was to adopt a budget plan, not debate social policy.
But Boehner wound up with nearly all the spending reductions he sought, and a provision barring the District of Columbia from spending its own money on abortions for low-income women. When he met privately with House Republicans in a basement Capitol room around 10 p.m., he got several rounds of applause.
Virtually no one left the room willing to publicly criticize the deal. 208 Republicans voted for the plan, 28 against.
“Clearly this is the right thing to do for the country,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Congress still has to review details of the agreement and then vote.
And sometime during the week, the House is expected to take up what could be an even more controversial proposal: The Republican plan to reduce spending by $6.2 trillion over the next 10 years.
Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, offered this reminder Saturday: “Republicans are still the minority in Washington.
We control one-half of one-third of the government.”
But a unified GOP has shown it can matter, and Republicans have renewed confidence.
“The speaker anticipates us well, and reads us well,” Lungren said.