Boehner's life-changing revelation: Has hapless Speaker finally learned how to do his job?

Instead of giving in to hard-right demands ahead of the next impasse, John Boehner went to Democrats first

Published March 19, 2015 6:25PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                    (Reuters/Larry Downing)
John Boehner (Reuters/Larry Downing)

We're not going to go so far as to call the House leadership competent this week. Within 36 hours of the release of its budget resolution, the Republican conference was already falling apart in dramatic fashion at the committee level, with chairmen fighting party leaders, wily conservative freedom-fighting freshmen fighting them all, incompetent vote-counting, etc. (And all this over the question of whether insane amounts of war funding should be on or off the books! Obviously there's broad GOP consensus that poor people have been livin' it up a little too much and need a good pulverizing.)

Resolution of that hot mess has been delegated to the majority leader and whip, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, who in the first half-year or so in their new roles appear to be... bad at their jobs.

Our old pal John Boehner, meanwhile, has been busy negotiating a bipartisan deal to rid Congress of a longstanding, annual problem that it's been temporarily throwing money at for the past decade-plus.

Wait, what?

"The House's top two leaders," TPM reports, "are on the verge of securing a sweeping deal to permanently fix a gaping hole in Medicare that has haunted Congress for more than a decade while also securing significant long-term savings in the program." As we wrote the other day, Boehner and Pelosi have been seeking a permanent solution to the so-called "doc fix" problem for Medicare reimbursement rates. This deal would get the issue off the table forever, much to the pleasure of lawmakers and physicians alike. It's an annual pain in the ass.

When I wrote about the emerging deal the other day, I was skeptical of its ability to work through Congress without falling apart along partisan lines. I'm still skeptical, though I may have underestimated how badly lawmakers want to be done with the faulty SGR reimbursement model. Members might be riding a confident "Look! We can do things!" wave right now, excited about this brief respite from total incompetence, but the legitimate gripes will resurface if this nears a vote. It's going to be difficult for conservatives to stomach the high upfront cost of this only partially offset plan, even if the cuts will accrue into serious savings over the long term. And for liberals, well, those savings are still entitlement cuts. Even if the bulk of it comes from ratcheting up means-testing for wealthier beneficiaries, that raises the long-term political problem of welfarizing Medicare and thus eroding broad, cross-income support for the program.

We'll see how far this goes. What's most interesting about this now, though, is the way John Boehner has approached it: by going to Democrats, instead of his right-flank, first.

Shortly after the DHS funding debacle, we wrote about how Boehner could rethink his job to make life a little easier on himself, albeit at a cost to his pride. Since Democrats are willing to prop him up in the event of a conservative coup attempt, he should take that job security into consideration and simply give up on appeasing his right flank. He could form a sort of governing coalition with Democrats and realistic Republicans and govern with far less drama.

Maybe Boehner is taking this to heart. Instead of going to Pelosi on hand-and-knees at the last minute for a bailout, he went to her first. This will displease outside groups like Heritage Action, who will see the partial offsets as a heresy against conservative principles. But what has John Boehner ever won for The Cause by trying to flatter groups like Heritage Action? He gets himself backed into a corner from which the only move is to fold completely. But here, by going to Democrats first ahead of the next "doc fix" deadline, he's in a position to eliminate a grating annual problem, win entitlement cuts from Nancy Pelosi, and jam the Senate.

Was that so hard?

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Congress Democrats Doc-fix Gop House Of Representatives John Boehner The Right