Don’t bet on John Boehner being ousted as House speaker during the latest round of wrangles on Capitol Hill this month. He’s likely to survive into 2016 and finish this, his third term, as the boss of the House majority Republicans.
Boehner might have any number of reasons to retire, not least of them a sense of frustration. That was evident in comments he made in an interview that was published this past weekend.
“Garbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage,” he told Politico’s Jake Sherman. “Prisoners learn how to become prisoners. … You can teach yourself to do anything, especially if you’re committed to a cause.”
And Boehner might choose to leave the stench (or orange jumpsuit?) behind in fairly short order. The picture soon gets cloudy for the 25-year veteran, as each election cycle makes the House younger and more restive, especially on the right. It would surprise few if Boehner, who is now 65, chose to retire after this Congress to the home he recently bought in Florida.
It has been a stormy 4 1/2 years for the Ohioan, who was, from the start, an unlikely leader for the new GOP majority elected in 2010. Boehner was older, more conventional and more center-right than most of the new troops produced in the Tea Party surge that year.
He found that out quickly when he tried to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” with President Obama in the spring and summer of 2011. His rank and file rebelled and the tax and debt deal fell apart. (There are differing narratives on whose fault it was exactly that the deal fell apart.) Standard & Poors downgraded U.S. debt, the stock market took a dive and defaulting on U.S. obligations became a topic of policy discussion.
Since then, Boehner has kept a greater distance from the White House. He has also cajoled his own conference and occasionally borrowed some votes from the Democratic side to pass bills he considered essential. He was not able to keep his troops from forcing a government-shutdown strategy in 2013, but he has sworn to do so this autumn.
Hence, the immediate crisis. Many Republicans are incensed by what they believe they have seen on videotape regarding Planned Parenthood’s handling of fetal tissue. They cannot abide another federal budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid and other federal programs.
So, they want it zeroed out under any spending legislation Boehner and his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, send the White House to keep the government running past Sept. 30.
If Obama vetoes that, conservatives believe, the country will blame Obama for the shutdown. That’s not been the way the country reacted to previous shutdowns under similar scenarios, but there’s always a chance it will be different this time.
In any event, shutdown or no, Boehner is likely to keep his speakership.
Here are five reasons Boehner is unlikely to be ousted:
1. Timing. The House elects a speaker at the start of a Congress and that person serves through that Congress. It doesn’t absolutely have to be that way, but that is how it has always been. The most successful takedown of a speaker happened in 1910, and even then tyrannical “Czar of the House” Joseph Cannon was allowed to finish out the term (albeit with drastic reductions to his powers of office).
2. Democrats probably want him to stay. Democrats, who would be needed to cooperate in a floor vote to dethrone Boehner, have little incentive to join such an effort. Anyone who might be elected in his place might well be someone they liked less.
3. No credible challenger. The rebels who might force Boehner from office have not brought forward a plausible champion to challenge him. The one publicly declared opponent is second-termer Mark Meadows from the mountains of Western North Carolina. He might be best described as a placeholder.
4. For the most part, his colleagues still like him. Whatever heat might be generated against him on talk radio and elsewhere in the media, the threat to his speakership has remarkably little to do with Boehner himself. Most House Republicans still like him personally, or at least find him acceptable. He has not made himself vulnerable on the ethics front, nor has he spawned individual animosities of the kind that weakened earlier speakers. He has his detractors and defenders, like any senior member. But even some of his critics give him credit for maintaining order, more or less, within the largest Republican majority in the House since 1948.
5. It’s not really about Boehner. The polls that show striking disapproval for Boehner, even among Republicans, are less about him than about the national dissatisfaction with Washington, Congress and the GOP — in that order. Note that Boehner’s Senate counterpart, McConnell, is even less popular in the same polls — and you don’t hear senators talking about bumping Mitch out of office. What the dissidents are really mad about is the House’s inability to overthrow the Obama presidency. Obamacare remains the law; the Iran deal is going through; the president keeps issuing orders on immigration, climate change and labor relations, and Congress can do little or nothing about it.
So the wind still blows in Boehner’s favor, at least for now. But that wind is likely to change in the near future. Next year, Republicans will campaign against not only the Democrats but also the alleged failures of their own party leadership in Washington. As this process plays out, Boehner may be beckoned by the breeze of a friendlier Floridian climate.
Here are five reasons to think Boehner will retire at the end of this term:
1. Frustration with GOP leaders will only grow. Assuming Boehner and McConnell find a way to revive the appropriations process — perhaps the familiar fallback mechanism of a continuing resolution — the government will not shut down and Planned Parenthood will continue to receive federal money. This will play out with heightened media awareness in the months ahead. So will whatever finagling Boehner and McConnell need to do to lift the debt ceiling once again, probably before the end of December. All of this fiscal reality will raise frustration levels on the right.
2. The Iran deal goes into effect. The Iran deal became official, in the eyes of the Obama administration, on Sept. 17. Thereafter, the administration said it would move to lift sanctions. News reports of money going to Iran will lead to news reports in coming months about Iranian actions, probably including some with anti-American and anti-Israeli impacts.
3. The balancing act will only get tougher. Boehner rose to the top party slot while the GOP was in the House minority from 2007 through 2010. Even then, he may have been less to the right than most of his colleagues. But he successfully managed the various factions in that far smaller conference and played his rivals against each other, taking some of them onto his leadership team. It was a balancing act from the beginning, and it will become all the more daunting after this fall. At some point, keeping it all together may require extraordinary measures — such as a declaration that 2016 will be Boehner’s last year in Congress.
4. The number of anti-establishment House Republicans might grow and become more entrenched. Even if Boehner does seek another term, his support may well erode during the primaries. The need to fend off intraparty challenges in the primaries will cause more and more Republican House incumbents to distance themselves from the exasperations of the Obama-Boehner era. Some will be asked to pledge a vote for a new speaker. Only a minority of incumbents will make such a pledge, but the message of the demands will be clear.
5. Republicans lose seats in 2016, a Democrat could win the White House, or both. If there are fewer Republicans in the House after 2016, Boehner will be under enormous pressure to step down. If a Democrat wins the White House in 2016, Boehner may find himself bearing some of the blame. Finally, if a Republican wins the presidency, the House GOP will sense a historic opportunity, and there will be hunger for a fresh, more dynamic and doctrinaire speaker.
No speaker likes to talk too much about post-retirement plans. But we can guess at this moment that Boehner has some, and also bet that his ticket out of town does not have 2015 stamped on it.
The chances of its saying 2017 are much, much better.