Speaker John Boehner and Representative Michele Bachmann have never been close. Now, in the midst of the Huma Abedin flap, the question is whether there will be open hostilities.
After Bachmann’s presidential campaign fizzled earlier this year, the Minnesota Republican returned to Capitol Hill unsure of her role in the House Republican conference. She had run and lost a race for a minor leadership post, and her Tea Party Caucus was idle. According to a couple of her friends, it was a personal and political low point. Fox News called sporadically, and a colorful bloc of conservative freshmen — Allen West, Rand Paul — were the Right’s new darlings.
But Bachmann had a political lifeline — a seat on the House Intelligence Committee — thanks to Boehner. Bachmann was tapped for the post in late 2010, and it has been a plum spot ever since then, enabling her to review classified material and enter the national-security debate as an insider. At the time of her appointment, many senior House GOP aides were wary of elevating the fiery backbencher, but Bachmann was vocal about her interest in foreign affairs, and Boehner assured them that it was an appropriate gesture.
Up until this month, having Bachmann on the intelligence committee has proved a good move from Boehner’s perspective. He has praised her in the past as a hardworking member, and he knew she would relish the opportunity to broaden her portfolio. Bachmann still may be a thorn in his side on various votes, aides explain, but she has usually avoided publicly railing against Boehner. That cold peace has ended, and the latest tensions may not end amicably, sources say.
Bachmann has generated national headlines for accusing Abedin, a top adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of tilting U.S. foreign policy in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group. Four other lawmakers signed Bachmann’s letter, but many Republicans have criticized Bachmann’s finger-pointing. Senator John McCain of Arizona was the first to reject Bachmann’s claims, then Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, did the same. But it’s Boehner’s cagey response to the kerfuffle that has made Bachmann and her allies nervous.
“I haven’t seen the letter, and I don’t know Huma, but from everything I do know of her, she has a sterling character,” Boehner told reporters last week. “And I think accusations like this being thrown around are pretty dangerous.” When a reporter followed up and asked about Bachmann’s intelligence-committee seat, Boehner didn’t rule anything out. “I don’t know that that’s related at all,” he said. According to a source close to Bachmann, the Minnesotan interpreted those remarks as a warning and a sign of Boehner’s tenuous support for her committee position. And from a procedural angle, her fears are warranted. Boehner may have picked her for the committee, but, as speaker, he could easily take that post away.
Several Republicans close to House leadership tell National Review Online that Boehner is not working to oust Bachmann from the committee or discipline her. If anything, one GOP source says, the entire episode has been a distraction for Boehner, especially since the speaker wants the conference to focus on jobs and the economy. If the situation festers, the leadership is keeping its options open, another aide says, but it expects Bachmann to eventually move on from the controversy.
There is a general sense among those close to Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Whip Kevin McCarthy that Bachmann is not so much a political threat to the leadership, but a member who needs to be better managed. Still, they say, because she does not consult with leadership on most of her initiatives and does not respond well to emissaries or private counsel, many aides feel that Boehner’s public statement was the best way to send a message — for now.
“If she’s not careful, she’s going to become irrelevant,” says Ed Rollins, the former campaign manager for Bachmann’s presidential campaign. “She’s on the intelligence committee and people assume that she has information that no one else has. So when she goes out and makes a charge, it has added weight. She’s close to crossing that ‘kook line,’ and Boehner and the others may be ready to dismiss her as a serious player.”
Bachmann doesn’t appear ready to back down. Instead, sources tell NRO, she is working behind the scenes to generate support for her intelligence-committee post. Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, who has spoken with Bachmann on his program about the Abedin story, has reported that Bachmann is “facing pressure to apologize for her comments” or risk being “removed from her position.” Republican House aides roll their eyes at the Beck story. No such pressure, they say, is being exerted on the congresswoman. If anything, a third leadership source reiterates, Boehner is doing his best to avoid spending time on the Bachmann matter, publicly or privately.
Yet the general goodwill that has existed between Bachmann and Boehner for the past year seems to be gone. Bachmann, long a force during closed-door conference meetings, is now a backbencher once again, at least in the eyes of many congressional politicos. Boehner may be pressured to kick her off the committee, but with her star power fading, he doesn’t seem in any rush to make her a martyr.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.