When John Boehner announced his resignation last month, he said he wanted to “clean the barn” before he left. What he is accomplishing this week should put him in the Barn Cleaning Hall of Fame.
If the votes go as planned — always a question mark in the current House — Boehner will end his week and his career having engineered the choice of his successor, stabilized the nation’s fiscal trajectory for the next two years and wrapped up most of the other major legislation pending in the chamber.
The new agreement will suspend the debt ceiling until March 2017 — after the next election — and set spending figures through September of that year.
It was not the “Grand Bargain” he had once envisioned in his first months as speaker. The dream was that he and President Obama might tackle tax reform, spending limits and even the sacred entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. In this imagined deal, the nation’s long-term indebtedness would be paid down — or at least returned to a manageable level.
But that bid for an overarching agreement broke down in the summer of 2011, the victim of misunderstandings between the parties and resistance in the ranks of Boehner’s House majority. But Boehner remained interested in making a deal on a smaller scale, something that would at least safeguard the essential operations of the Treasury and the Pentagon and attract enough votes in both parties in both chambers to become law.
And that is what Boehner managed to do on his way out the door.
The deal struck by the bipartisan leaders of Congress and the president essentially lets both sides declare victories while accepting a modicum of sacrifice. Democrats had to bend a bit on Obamacare (large companies will not be forced to enroll employees automatically in their health plans) and on the Social Security Disability Trust Fund. They also did not get as much new domestic spending as they wanted, although they did get rough parity with the increases that defense hawks sought for the military. Steps were taken to avoid premium spikes next year for Medicare Part B recipients.
In exchange for these compromises, both sides got a reasonable assurance that their electoral campaigns next year will not be disrupted by fiscal disasters and partisan showdowns in Washington.
Ultimately, Boehner knew that assurance was a driver for nearly everyone’s participation.
The trigger for all his sunset achievements, of course, was Boehner’s own decision to resign. That disarmed the rebels within the House Republican ranks, who were prepared to challenge Boehner’s right to lead if he brought any more business to the floor to be passed with Democratic votes. So, by voluntarily renouncing his office, Boehner freed himself to do what needed to be done.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s epitaph for another warrior, nothing in his career became him like the leaving it.
And the rebels, primarily the 40-plus members of the House Freedom Caucus, were reduced to fulminating on the sideline. “It’s a bad deal,” said caucus leader Jim Jordan of Ohio. “It was done in a process that was bad, and the product is not good. That is not the way we are supposed to be handling things around here if we are going to address the $18 trillion debt problem we have. It’s just not the way you want to do business.”
Boehner had anticipated those objections long before they were raised. “When you get a bipartisan agreement in a town that isn’t known for a lot of bipartisanship,” he said, “you’re going to see bricks flying from people who don’t like that it’s a bipartisan agreement.”
Boehner had many allies in his triumphal departure. His aides worked closely with counterparts from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is expected to shepherd the fiscal truce through his chamber by week’s end. Boehner and McConnell have more than half a century of Hill experience between them, and they have shared many bruising episodes in leadership.
They long ago decided they would not allow the government to shutter itself as it did in 2013, nor to flirt with default on past obligations as in 2011. Both of those incidents caused sharp reactions in financial markets and sent Republican approval numbers plummeting in public opinion polls.
So among those who should line up to thank Boehner for all this are the Republican candidates for president and Congress who will not have to be dealing with fiscal cliffs, shutdowns, defaults and other mortal threats to the nation’s financial health in the election year of 2016.
They can line up for the deal or against, and, of course, most of the Republican presidential hopefuls will be opposed. The GOP base that dominates primaries and caucuses will see this deal as a sellout to Obama.
The list of the grateful should, of course, begin with Paul Ryan, the 45-year-old Wisconsin wunderkind who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate. Ryan is expected to take the big gavel from Boehner on Thursday. Boehner was instrumental in persuading Ryan to give up his beloved Ways and Means Committee chair and take on the daunting challenge of running the whole House.
Who knows, that persuasion process might have included assurances that Ryan would not have to start his speakership with a series of financial crises.
One more favor to Ryan could be seen in his excusal from the secret negotiations that led to Boehner’s big deal. It made it possible for Ryan to rip those negotiations and say, “The process stinks.” That way, Ryan could preserve his viability with the Freedom Caucus and others enraged by Boehner’s compromise. Jordan, for one, said he did not blame Ryan for the deal — only Boehner.
Let us have a moment of sympathy for the Freedom Caucus. After their tactics exasperated Boehner to the point of quitting last month, they were feeling quite muscular. When they bristled at Boehner’s first “heir apparent,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, they blocked his path to the speakership. They were feeling their oats.
But the Freedom Caucus does not have a horse that can compete against Ryan, who is, after all, a man many caucus members like and admire. The caucus formally endorsed one of its own, Daniel Webster of Florida. But it has also made clear it will not withhold its votes when the process reaches the House floor and all Republicans need to vote together.
If that commitment holds, it will virtually assure Ryan’s succession, closing out Boehner’s agenda. A fitting end to a week to remember.