Boehner's job isn't impossible: How the Speaker could make his life easier than ever

There is a way for John Boehner to stay secure in his job and rule the House effectively, but he won't like it

Published March 6, 2015 6:55PM (EST)

John Boehner                                   (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
John Boehner (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

The Cool Conservatives Club, a.k.a. the House Freedom Caucus, is feeling very satisfied with itself. Why? Because they just managed to completely lose a showdown with President Obama and congressional Democrats, after heaping several more months of embarrassment on the Republican party and the "ability to govern" they allegedly need to show ahead of the 2016 elections? Probably not the words that they would use, but yes, that's exactly why they're satisfied.

Politico, in approximately the ten-millionth news article titled "Rebels with a cause," reports on the sense of pride that Freedom Caucus members are taking in their first highly publicized failure to secure legislative gains while embarrassing their party. They took Boehner's rejection of their plan to hold out for a conference with the Senate -- something that Senate Democrats filibustered -- and ultimate decision to cave for a "clean" DHS bill as a sign of victory. "[T]hat defeat looked almost like a victory to many members of the Freedom Caucus," Politico reports, "who insist they have established themselves as a unified force." Indeed, total defeats are best kinds of victories. What say ye, Rep. Matt Salmon?

“While yesterday we might have lost a major battle, I think that tactically, our strength is growing very quickly,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said. “The number of people who want to join our ranks is increasing every day.”

Here on Planet Earth, a Freedom Caucus member like Matt Salmon would be far too embarrassed to use "our," "tactically" and "strength"  in the same sentence. That hot mess that he and his band of misfits put the country through did not resemble anything close to a well considered tactical approach.

The only sense in which it was a victory for them is that it enhanced their brand as anti-Boehners, an identity that makes them useless, legislatively, but does at least ward off potential primary challengers from their right. If it wasn't clear already, they've eliminated any doubt that this is their prerogative, instead of serving as useful members of Congress looking out for the reputation of the Republican party and its congressional majorities.

This doesn't mean, however, that we need to get all sorry for John Boehner and his Impossible Situation. Even in our decaying Constitutional set-up, there is a path forward for Boehner to govern quite effectively. It's just not one he'll like.

Freedom Caucus members insist that they won't try to launch a coup against Boehner in the near future. That's less a reflection of their generosity than the math being against them -- not that they've ever had a great relationship with math. They could bring up a motion to vacate the Speaker's office, but they'd need a majority of the House to pass it. That means that Democrats would have to link up with Freedom Caucus members to support the motion.

But as The Hill reports today, Democrats would likely support Boehner in such an instance. They don't want to set a precedent of directly meddling with another conference's internal politics, and they don't want an even more ludicrous Speaker taking Boehner's place. "Democrats from across an ideological spectrum," The Hill writes, "say they'd rather see Boehner remain atop the House than replace him with a more conservative Speaker who would almost certainly be less willing to reach across the aisle in search of compromise. Replacing him with a Tea Party Speaker, they say, would only bring the legislative process — already limping along — to a screeching halt."

This means that Boehner is safe for the rest of the 114th Congress. If he's willing to bank on that, and endure all the screeching it would elicit from conservatives, he could put himself in a position where his job has never been easier.

David Rogers, Politico's excellent congressional reporter and analyst, wrote this week how Boehner could reimagine his speakership: not as majority-leader-on-steroids, but as Speaker of the House as the position was originally conceived. The role is designed to seek out the majority will of the body. If Boehner saw himself less as the head of the House Republican conference and more as the cobbler of a governing coalition, he'd have no problems.

On paper, the GOP currently has 245 members, but when 50 feel they can walk away from their leadership on any given day, it’s really a plurality, not a majority.

The House, then, is not controlled by one party but is better understood as a playing field for at least three: the party on the right; the dominant Republican core in the center; and the left, represented by the Democrats.

The challenge is to build alliances among these three to get to the 218 votes needed to move legislation. This coalition approach may seem a blow to Republican pride, but it could also be liberating for John Boehner since it brings him back to the role he often forgets: speaker of the House.

That would take care of this Congress, at least. Assuming Boehner, for inexplicable reasons, wants to carry out another term as speaker, he'd be in trouble in the speakership election at the beginning of the next Congress, when the lack of a majority would force second, third, fourth, infinity ballots.

Boehner should cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi. If he promises to bring up necessary pieces of legislation -- debt ceiling increases, appropriations bills -- without right-wing riders, Democrats will vote for him at the beginning of the next Congress. Between Boehner's allies who are sick of the recurring drama emanating from their far right flank and Democrats who are sick of the recurring drama emanating from Republicans' far right flank, he'd have the votes.

In his Politico piece, Rogers notes that conceiving of his speakership this way would be a wound to Boehner's pride. For sure! But it's an option that's staring him straight in the face, and if he doesn't take it, he shouldn't expect any more compassion about the impossibility of his position.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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