The hell that is being John Boehner

Yet again, Tea Party purists remind the House speaker who's really the boss. Better start the shutdown clock ...

Topics: Republican Party, War Room,

The hell that is being John BoehnerHouse Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks to the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)(Credit: AP)

The federal government still probably won’t shut down when the fiscal year ends next week, but suddenly it looks like it will be a close call. This is the result of what is widely and fairly being described as yet another embarrassing rebuke of House Speaker John Boehner by his own Republican members on Wednesday night.

Boehner tried to muscle through a measure that would have funded government operations through November (a short-term extension is needed because Congress has yet to pass most of the individual appropriation bills for the fiscal year). But even though he and his lieutenants apparently did their best Tom DeLay impressions, trying to win over reluctant members by threatening their committee assignments, 48 Republicans still defied their leadership, sending the package to a 230-195 defeat.

There are two particularly notable aspects of the vote. One is how little it took to trigger the GOP rebellion. We’re talking about a two-month plan here, one that would reduce spending by 1.4 percent over the current fiscal year, to the level established by this summer’s debt ceiling agreement. On top of that, Boehner also bowed to conservatives’ demands that any new funding for disaster relief — a necessity now, in the wake of Hurricane Irene — be offset with cuts, slashing $1.5 billion from a program that encourages the production of energy-efficient cars. And all of this comes as the congressional supercommittee prepares to assemble a massive long-term deficit reduction program, supposedly a top GOP priority.

So in theory, this two-month patch job shouldn’t have been a tough sell to Republican House members. And yet, dozens of them refused to go along, on the grounds that it still doesn’t cut enough. This reflects the Tea Party mind-set that has gripped the Obama-era Republican Party. The GOP’s House ranks are filled with members who themselves are true believers, or who fear what might happen to them in their next primary election if they don’t act like true believers. Over and over, it creates situations like this, where the traditional tools that Boehner, as the party’s leader, would use to enforce discipline just don’t work.

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It’s also notable that Democrats didn’t bail out Boehner. This was probably his idea in bringing the plan to the floor without a unified conference — that enough Democrats would swallow hard on the disaster relief offsets and vote yes anyway to make up for any Republican defections. This has happened on previous votes, but Democrats seem to be wising up, and virtually all of them voted no on Wednesday night. The cuts to the car program clearly had something to do with it, but maybe they also see value in making Boehner sweat — and in highlighting how ideologically extreme the GOP House actually is.

After all, votes like Wednesday night’s probably have a lot to do with the Republican Party’s serious image problem. Not long ago, a poll found that just 33 percent of Americans view the GOP favorably — the lowest score in recorded history for either major party. That number is all the more jarring when you consider the massive midterm landslide Republicans enjoyed last fall; in less than a year of running the House, they’ve succeeded in alienating the vast majority of voters.

Tea Party fanaticism is at the heart of this. Given the mood of the party’s base and the number of true believers (and true believer-fearers) in his conference, Boehner has very little room to maneuver on every important vote. In theory, he has the option of running and cutting a deal with Barack Obama and the Democrats, but doing so could get him branded a traitor and lead to a mutiny. That’s what he discovered this summer, when he seemed genuinely receptive to the deficit reduction “grand bargain” that Obama was proposing, only to run away from the talks at the last minute when it became clear that even the modest concessions Obama was demanding would be too much for the GOP base. This dynamic creates what for the average voter probably seem like unnerving spectacles — a near-government shutdown back in the spring, the debt default saga this summer, more talk of a shutdown now.

When it comes to surviving as speaker, Boehner actually has done a good job. But you wonder: Is the status that comes with the title worth it for how little real power he has — and how often he faces embarrassments like Wednesday night’s? It sometimes seems like he’s the congressional equivalent of a substitute teacher.

And then there’s the bigger question of what effect this is having on the entire GOP. Appeasing the base this year has come with a price, but the silver lining for Boehner and other GOP leaders is that their party’s image problem hasn’t yet helped Obama, whose own poll numbers remain in perilous territory. But is there a point at which the GOP’s antics become too much even for swing voters who really are fed up with Obama and otherwise ready to vote him out? If the party’s favorable rating is still 33 percent — or worse — next year, will it rub off on the GOP presidential nominee?

Granted, this new shutdown crisis will probably be resolved soon. Democrats have made their point, and if Boehner removes the disaster relief offsets, he’ll probably have the extra votes he needs to pass it. But working with Democrats this time will only give him less leeway to do it again in the future. And since this is only a two-month plan, we could just end up back in the same situation at the end of November. Plus, Wednesday’s vote is clear proof that House Republicans aren’t settling down and learning to be more flexible. They’re as unyielding as ever, which means we’ll probably have eruptions like this throughout the 2012 campaign.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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