Nearly every morning, Speaker John Boehner wakes at dawn at his Capitol Hill home, puts on khaki shorts and a golf shirt, and takes a brief walk to a greasy spoon called Pete’s Diner. He travels alone, except for his security detail, and he sits at the counter, which is often crowded with police officers and college students. The Chinese family that runs the place knows him as “John” — just another customer and early riser. Over coffee and eggs, he reads his iPad and cracks jokes with the short-order cooks. Most days, like clockwork, he’s out of there by 6:30 a.m., on his way either to Mass or to work.
Boehner’s friends chuckle about his penchant for Pete’s. They suspect he likes it because it reminds him of Andy’s Café, the bar his family long owned in southwest Ohio. But beyond the nostalgia, it’s his commitment to the routine that matters. Boehner is notoriously averse to shaking up his breakfasts, or how he runs the House of Representatives. “People tend to overlook the fact that he doesn’t really do surprises,” says Representative Pat Tiberi, a fellow Ohio Republican and a Boehner ally. “He’s driven by the process.”
Boehner’s reluctance to tinker with the pace of the House’s legislative activity is becoming more apparent this week as immigration reform steams toward the lower chamber. Behind the scenes, supporters of the Gang of Eight’s legislation are lobbying him to bring the Senate’s bill to the floor, but he keeps rebuffing their pleas. It’s not that he’s against immigration reform — he’s broadly supportive. But he refuses to break from “regular order,” the routine that has guided him throughout this debate. That means slowly filtering a bill through the committees, and then spending time on amendments.
Instead, Boehner will toss immigration reform back to Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who is already working through a handful of bills. “Boehner’s preference is for the committees to lead, since that creates a bottom-up policy,” says Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the Appropriations Committee chairman. “That’s smart politics. We don’t have earmarks anymore, so the speaker is limited in what he can do to win votes. Working through the chairmen is a good way to find leverage in a job with few options.”
Boehner’s steady approach, however, will be challenged in the coming weeks. If the House eventually passes a series of immigration bills, they would likely be sent to bicameral conference committee, which would then try to craft a consensus. Boehner would be asked to bring whatever emerges from that session to the House floor. But even then, a vote wouldn’t be guaranteed. The “Hastert rule,” a guideline established by former speaker Denny Hastert and embraced by conservatives, encourages a Republican speaker to proceed only on legislation that has the majority’s support.
Boehner reiterated to reporters on Thursday that he’ll resist moving a bill — after Senate passage or after a conference review — if it lacks significant Republican support. “For any legislation, including the conference report, to pass the House it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members,” he said. Those words unsettled the Gang’s leaders, who have privately hoped that Boehner is bluffing.
But that’s the way things work in Boehnerland. It doesn’t matter if a bill has momentum, or if it’s featured triumphantly on magazine covers; what matters is that the routine that House Republicans have established is followed, since that’s what keeps the peace. In divided government, Boehner is concerned far more with cohesion within his ranks than about becoming a bill’s cheerleader. When he has broken the “Hastert rule” over the past year — on the fiscal-cliff vote and on Sandy relief — there’s been pain.
This isn’t to say that immigration reform is dead. Boehner appears open to bringing a bill to the floor if, months from now, a conference-committee report somehow wins backing of a majority of the House GOP. In the meantime, don’t expect much from the man who eats at the same stool each morning at Pete’s. He won his gavel by being patient, cautious, and playing the long game. His life and politics stick to certain patterns. Democrats may think he can be pushed, but they’ll probably be disappointed.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.