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Boehner’s Trial

by Jonathan Strong

The House speaker’s reluctant march to a shutdown

The day after the government shut down, Speaker John Boehner woke up feeling under siege.

Pushed into a fight he didn’t want by Senator Ted Cruz and the defund brigade, Boehner had embraced a strategy he knew would end in disaster, only to face a new revolt from the moderates in his conference, one he personally stared down on the House floor. Boehner confided to his closest congressional allies at an October 3 meeting that he had asked why God would have put him in this position. “There must be a reason,” he thought as he lay awake in his bed. As Boehner went through his prayers, one in particular prompted a sudden, overwhelming feeling of peace.

The account startled the 20 or so lawmakers in attendance; Boehner isn’t usually so open about his faith. Indeed, when one southerner there urged him to share the story with the public, he pushed back: “I’m a Catholic — not a Baptist!” But the story’s meaning was clear to his friends. “He wanted to make sure that we all understood that he was up for the fight,” says Representative Pat Tiberi of Ohio.

The speaker’s prayer was a turning point, after which he put everything he had into the shutdown showdown with President Obama. To pin Democrats with responsibility for the shutdown, Boehner and his team moved nimbly to propose bills that would fund national parks, pay soldiers, and resume other government operations whose cessation seemed made for the TV cameras. Throughout the saga, the House GOP may have leaked like a sieve to the media, but the tidbits reporters gleaned weren’t about squabbles at the leadership table, which was remarkably united, participants say.

The conservatives who had pushed the GOP into the fight lined up behind Boehner, who gave his colleagues pep-rally-style speeches about sticking together. President Obama, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and the Democrats “are trying to annihilate us,” he told them eight days into the shutdown, “but we can get through this if we stick together.”

“The only way out,” he explained, “is to win.”

In the end, though, it wasn’t nearly enough. As Boehner had anticipated, the episode ended in a humiliating defeat, one that may undermine the House GOP’s credibility and influence in future spending fights.

One week into the August recess, Boehner, House majority leader Eric Cantor, and the rest of the GOP leadership thought they had the situation under control. “No one is advocating a government shutdown,” Cantor assured National Review on August 9. Top aides were almost glib. “A shutdown? It’s not happening, it’s really not, but I guess you won’t hear people say that out loud, including me,” chuckled a senior House Republican.

But rank-and-file members spread out across the country were starting to feel something different. “We hear it in our town halls, we hear it in our one-on-one meetings with constituents,” Wyoming representative Cynthia Lummis told me toward the end of the recess. “We hear it when we’re at county fairs or events we’ve attended during the August recess, of which there are many. And the message all over the country . . . is that [Obamacare] is the overriding issue that is being discussed. Way more than immigration, way more than the debt.”

On August 22, Boehner tried to lay down the law in a 6:00 p.m. conference call with the House GOP. He announced a plan to pursue a “clean” short-term continuing resolution to fund the government — that is, one that did not defund Obamacare or seek to advance other political objectives. Boehner argued that using the bill to fight Obamacare would be folly.

The overture did not go over well. Ever since the fiscal-cliff fracas at the beginning of the year, Boehner had bent over backwards to incorporate input from the conference into his decisions. Now, with members feeling the heat from their constituents back home, the tone was, “Well, this is the decision leadership has made,” recalls Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland. “And it was like, ‘Hmm. I don’t think that’s what we talked about. That’s not how it’s been working.’ I think that’s when he got pushback.” On the call that day, Westmoreland was emphatic with Boehner. “Go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Meanwhile, those in Boehner’s orbit were increasingly convinced that the end game of those pushing the defund strategy was less about Obamacare and more about dethroning the speaker.

On August 27, protesters chanted “Fire Boehner!” outside the speaker’s district office in Troy, Ohio. Anger simmered at the event, with one man shouting “Fascist pig!” at a police officer. The protest was organized by Faith2Action, an aggressive pro-life group that features video interviews of Representatives Tim Huelskamp and Louie Gohmert, two Republicans who tried to unseat Boehner in January, on its website.

Talk-radio hosts threatened to dub the health-care law “Boehnercare” if the Ohio Republican didn’t embrace the defund strategy. On Twitter, the “#FireBoehner” hashtag found a new lease on life. Cruz, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and other top leaders cleverly framed the decision as whether their Republican colleagues would vote “for Obamacare.”

“A small number of our members — they would like to, any way they can accomplish, see him leave,” says Tiberi.

Upon the Republicans’ return to Washington, a plan floated by Cantor to force only a show vote on Obamacare died a quick death, derided by Lee as a face-saving gimmick and by Boehner’s House critics as the “hocus pocus” plan.

Leaders quickly realized the choice they faced and mulled their two options with senior lawmakers over several days in mid September. They could pass a “clean” bill with Democratic votes. But their estimates of GOP support put the number of “yes” votes below 40, meaning such a course would have ripped the House Republicans apart at the seams.

The other choice was to plunge ahead into the shutdown, a course they’d been warning against for months. “They knew that this was a folly. Every single one of them knew this was bulls***,” says one House lawmaker about the leadership.

A day or two before the government’s funding expired, Boehner made the final call. They were just going to have to do this, he concluded.

Boehner “has said for a long time, as long as I’ve known him, long before he was back in leadership, that the reason why he was here is to do the ‘big deal,’” Tiberi says. And at the October 3 “Team Boehner” meeting, where he shared his spiritual acceptance of the shutdown, the Ohio Republican expressed optimism that he could get Obama to the table for such an agreement — one that included modest entitlement cuts and a path forward on tax reform.

Twelve days later, this ambition seemed laughable. At the only big White House summit with Republicans, Obama had basically run out the clock, at one point prompting majority whip Kevin McCarthy to shake his head in frustration, drawing the president’s notice. Now Senate Republicans were anxious to get out of the slow-moving political disaster and looking to jam the House by negotiating their own solution.

Deep in the Capitol basement, Boehner laid out the last play — for the House to preempt the deal Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was set to strike with Reid. “I’d rather throw a grenade than catch a grenade,” Boehner told his colleagues. The bill he described would include only trivial concessions to the GOP, a far cry from the grandiose ambitions they had started with at Cruz’s behest. But, Boehner said, this is our “last chance to retain any shred of dignity.”

When he finished speaking, the room was silent. And for the next 30 minutes, the conversation was distinctly positive. “It looked like we might get the votes for this thing,” recalls one member who was in the room. One part of the proposal did draw some polite questions. Boehner wanted to end a federal Obamacare subsidy for members of Congress and top political appointees at the White House but leave it intact for thousands of congressional staffers. There was concern it could look hypocritical.

Boehner’s conservative critics in the conference, who congregated in the back rows of the meeting room, began to rally around that criticism. They were pitching their own plan, crafted the previous night with Cruz in the basement of Tortilla Coast, a Capitol Hill restaurant. Another 30 minutes later, Boehner’s escape hatch was critically damaged.

Florida representative Steve Southerland, the tea-party class of 2010’s voice at the leadership table, stepped in. Citing criticism that the proposal applied only to lawmakers and not to staff (who had long since been asked to leave the room by an angry Representative Joe Barton of Texas), Southerland pressed the dissenters: Will you vote for the bill if Boehner changes it?

“He called them out,” says a lawmaker who was in the room, asking them, “Come on, come on, we’re in the locker room here, guys! Tell us! Are you gonna vote for it or not?” Southerland was pointing to the back of the room, where Representatives Jim Jordan, Raul Labrador, Justin Amash, Mick Mulvaney, and others sat. Their voices low, the group expressed their assent — they would back Boehner.

Even that, it turned out, wasn’t enough. Leadership played Whac-A-Mole for the rest of the afternoon as the conference splintered. There were at least four categories of opposition, and despite further changes, it looked like the bill would be defeated. Until the last minute, several in Boehner’s circle pushed him to bring it to the House floor anyway, thinking the high stakes would force opponents to back down. “The whip count was close,” remembers one top Republican. Others warned it could be an excruciating vote with no purpose, putting the House GOP’s team players in a difficult spot. If it did lose, the fallout would be even worse for Boehner than if he canceled the vote, they said.

Boehner canceled. The next day, he told the House GOP that the gig was up. “We fought the good fight,” he said, but lost. Cantor counseled unity, warning members not to turn fights over tactics into purity crusades. With the microphones open for members to speak, no one came forward. Instead, the entire body rose to give Boehner a standing ovation.

The fight was gone from even the most ardent proponents of the defund strategy, who, to a person, watched the final deal move forward without raising a finger. At 9:21 p.m. that evening, the House approved a procedural vote for an essentially “clean” continuing-resolution and debt-ceiling bill by voice vote. No one who had vowed to oppose any bill that funded Obamacare objected. On the Senate side, Cruz, who had waged a 21-hour filibuster weeks earlier, told reporters that “of course” he wouldn’t stall the bill’s speedy passage.

“They blinked. That’s what happened. One person could have stopped it,” says California representative Devin Nunes, who emerged in the shutdown as the top Cruz critic on the right. “It was the equivalent of Custer’s last stand, but General Custer didn’t show up to the battle.”

On the final roll call for passage, the bill passed the House with only 87 Republican votes. Then the GOP left town, with virtually nothing to claim for a brutal and exhausting three-week fight with the president.

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