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Boehner and his hard-line antagonists differed over style, not substance

The difference is over whether it’s worth compromising on issues of substance to avoid shutting down the government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner discussing his resignation in a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Friday.
REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

It will be weeks or more before we can begin to understand whether Speaker John Boehner’s sudden decision to step down makes much difference in Washington.

Does it make a government shutdown more or less likely? I’ve seen arguments in both directions, but most of the seers say less likely, at least for a few weeks. Boehner will remain as speaker for another month, and now he doesn’t have to worry about what the hard-liners will do to him. If he (and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also opposes a shutdown) can get a deal done before Boehner departs at the end of October, that will end the crisis until the next crisis.  And the hard-liners (according to some analysts) might be temporarily gratified by the feeling that they ran Boehner outta town. On the third hand (or whatever number I’m up to) Boehner, who came from the old school that compromise wasn’t a mortal sin, will soon be gone.

After watching Boehner’s press conference (during which he fought back tears several times but also sang a few bars of “Zippity Doo Dah,”) herewith a few highlights from the presser, a few reactions, an excellent analysis from someone who actually knows how Congress works, and a few biased thoughts of my own:

Boehner’s tale to the assembled D.C. media of how this came down was amazingly thin on substance. Many elements of his version are hard to accept at face value, but at such a moment he gets to put out the official version, according to him. So, according to him:

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Boehner had planned to retire the speakership at the end of 2014, but when his second-in-command and heir apparent (former Majority Leader Eric Cantor) lost his 2014 reelection bid, Boehner decided to stay on to avoid a chaotic leadership fight.

But his new plan (until yesterday) was to announce his resignation on Nov. 17, which will be his 66th birthday. (This may indeed have been in his mind, but if so, no one else knew about it.)

Then, after his big day with the Pope yesterday (Boehner, weepily, told of a magic moment when Pope Francis put his arm around Boehner and said “pray for me,”) Boehner went to bed thinking about moving his announcement up to today.

He told his wife he was thinking about doing so. (This was my favorite part of his exchange with the press. Someone in the gaggle demanded to know what Boehner’s wife said when he told her he might announce his retirement the next day. He replied that her reply was: “Good.”)

He woke up the next day, said his prayers, and decided yup, today’s the day. And thus it was.

As you may know, Boehner was preparing for a challenge from the far right of the Republican caucus to his speakership, something called a motion to vacate the chair, which tests whether the sitting speaker has the support of a majority of the House.

Apparently, the Boehner critics had about 25 members House Republicans who would vote against him. If they got up to 29, Boehner would need some Democrats to vote for him to keep his gavel.

Boehner told the media gaggle that he had “no doubt that I could survive the vote,” but that a prolonged controversy over his tenure would not be helpful to the House doing its business. Boehner said several times that a speaker has responsibility not only to his party but to the institution of the House, which would be damaged by such a leadership controversy, especially in the midst of the difficult maneuvers surrounding the budget and the possibility of a government shutdown.

Above, I promised you someone who knows what she’s talking about. That would be University of Minnesota Political Scientist Kathryn Pearson, whose specialty is Congress.

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Pearson said that it was unclear whether Boehner could win that challenge without Democratic votes. If he had to rely on Democrats to keep his gavel, that would embarrass and weaken him.

For Pearson, the irony of the Boehner leadership crisis is that Boehner and those who were plotting to dump him don’t disagree on most substantive policy questions. At the moment, the Republican hardliners are demanding that federal funds to Planned Parenthood be cut off. Boehner would also like to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. (Can I mention again that Planned Parenthood is already prohibited from using any federal funds for abortion services?)

“The difference between Boehner and those who are trying to get rid of him is not a difference over substance,” said Person. They agree on most issues of substance. The difference is over tactics. 

The difference is over whether it’s worth compromising on issues of substance to avoid shutting down the government. A small group of Republican hard-liners, whom Pearson said “have very little regard for the institution of the House,” is drawn to the tactic of shutting down the government. Boehner, by contrast, is “an institutional loyalist” who thinks it’s a mistake, politically and institutionally, to shut down the government.

The problems arising over this kind of difference wasn’t going to go away, Pearson said, and “despite the fact that Boehner had many tools at his disposal, the challenge of governing over a caucus that was so divided over strategy and institutional loyalty made his job nearly impossible. Boehner’s support had eroded to the point where he could no longer be an effective leader.”

Boehner was asked at his press conference whether he would support a candidate to take his place. He declined to make an explicit endorsement but mentioned only Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whom he said would be a good choice.

Pearson said the odds are that McCarthy will likely seek and get the job. He’s a little more conservative than Boehner, she said, and he will start out without the baggage that Boehner has accumulated in past confrontations with the right-wing of the party. But McCarthy, like Boehner, is an institutionalist and it’s quite possible that he will have similar problems.

Washington’s three top Democrats all spoke about Boehner yesterday and their comments seemed consistent with Pearson’s analysis.

Harry Reid, the leader of Senate Democrats, said Boehner was “someone who understood the art of compromise,” and that Boehner’s demise is evidence that “the party of Eisenhower and Reagan is no more.”

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House Democratic Leader (and previous speaker) Nancy Pelosi said that Boehner’s demise was a symptom of “the failure of the House Republicans to engage in dialogue for the good of the American people.”

President Obama said: “John Boehner’s a good man. He was someone who understood that in governing, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you have to work with people whom you disagree with — sometimes strongly – in order to do the people’s business…

“My hope,” Obama said, “is that there’s a recognition on the part of the next speaker of something I think John understood — even though at times it was challenging to bring his caucus along — that we can have significant differences on issues but that doesn’t mean we have to shut down the government, it doesn’t mean you risk the full faith and credit of the United States.”