Boehner hands Democrats another gift: Reviving their 2012 coalition

Republicans may succeed in dooming immigration, ENDA and anything else -- but a lot of voters will take notice

Published November 4, 2013 6:47PM (EST)

John Boehner                                     (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
John Boehner (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

In the first few weeks of the 113th Congress, while collective memory of the November election was still fresh, Speaker John Boehner responded to Senate action on a bunch of different legislative items -- the "fiscal cliff" tax bill, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, etc. -- by (eventually) putting them on the House floor and getting out of the way.

The pattern suggested to Democrats that the key to forcing action in the Republican House was to build bipartisan coalitions for certain key bills in the Senate and then relying on political pressure -- constituent and interest group activism, media narrative building -- to overcome the GOP leadership's reflexive inertia.

But Dems took the wrong lesson from those early weeks. It wasn't just that Boehner et al. were more responsive to public pressure in the immediate aftermath of a losing election (though they probably were) but that the items they folded on were all essentially deadline driven.

VAWA authorization had lapsed. A hurricane hit the East Coast. All of the Bush tax cuts were about to expire. That's the pattern they should've recognized. The reasoning that led them to believe it extended to proactive issues was misguided, and failed them pretty exquisitely when the House shrugged off Senate-passed immigration reform legislation.

Fortunately for Democrats, the political logic of leaning on the House is solid, even if it doesn't result in substantive accomplishments. It clarifies who the villain is. Like a game of Clue, but with a single culprit, crime scene and weapon. The GOP, in the House, with the speaker's gavel.

That's why it's a pretty big deal that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act appears poised to pass the Senate this week, and that the GOP is poised to kill it in the House.

"The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs," Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel told TPM. (There is, of course, precious little evidence that non-discrimination laws generate excessive lawsuits.)

Just like there's no immigration reform cliff, there's no ENDA cliff, and no equal pay for women cliff, and, thanks to the Supreme Court, no Voting Rights Act cliff. By sitting on their hands if (or after) these items clear the Senate, House Republicans don't invite automatic disruption like a government shutdown or default on the debt. They preserve the status quo undisrupted.

Big Senate bills in and of themselves won't shake House Republicans out of their paralysis. It's unrealistic to expect the House will address all of these issues and it's possible they won't address any of them. But the constituent groups to whom these issues matter -- Latinos, the LGBT community, women, African-Americans and young people -- won't be confused about who killed them.

The flip side of the GOP becoming a whites-only party and crossing its fingers that fails is that Boehner is doing his damnedest to help Democrats revive their 2008 and 2012 coalitions in the coming midterm.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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