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Boehner's Blues: Why Would Anyone Want This Job?

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, makes his way to the House chamber for a procedural vote on Saturday.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, makes his way to the House chamber for a procedural vote on Saturday.

John Boehner might not have the worst job in politics, but not many people envy the House speaker these days.

The GOP rank and file won't listen to him, grass-roots conservatives don't trust him, and Democrats say he can't deliver votes.

For a man who occupies the most powerful position in the House, Boehner's inability — or, possibly, his unwillingness — to persuade his fellow House Republicans to accept a budget without delaying or blocking parts of the Affordable Care Act has resulted in the first government shutdown since 1996.

"He's a man who is in place at the wrong time," says James Thurber, a longtime observer of Congress at American University. "He has a caucus he can't control."

Boehner is in a position that might not work out too well for anyone. With a 32-seat majority at the moment, he has few votes to lose and not enough members of his own majority that he can count on. Making any deals with Democrats at this point puts his own job at risk.

"Clearly, Boehner has one of the most difficult jobs in Washington, trying to lead what is a borderline ungovernable caucus," says Chris Krueger, a former House GOP aide and now a policy analyst with Guggenheim Securities.

No Way To Negotiate

President Obama over the past couple of years has complained that Boehner can't deliver the votes on any deal they might strike. For his part, Boehner has said the president has changed the outline of deals as they've gone along and refuses now to meet one-on-one with Obama.

Within his own institution, Boehner hasn't always been able to push through packages he seemed to want. Last week, he floated a plan to wed spending cuts and regulatory changes to an increase in the government's authority to take on more debt. It went nowhere with his conference.

This was reminiscent of Boehner's failed attempt last December to put forward a budgetary "Plan B," which had to be shelved after he couldn't persuade enough House Republicans to support it.

Boehner has, on three occasions, allowed significant legislation to pass largely with the support of Democrats. But advancing bills that lack support from a majority of his GOP colleagues isn't something he can do very often.

Part of the problem is the unrest within the GOP conference: A dozen Republicans voted against his second term as speaker in January. Conservatives haven't grown much happier with his leadership. And they've been prodded to resist Boehner's compromises by forces outside the chamber, such as Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

"A guy has to worry more about his Twitter universe and niche followers than [about the] the leaders of the House," says Terry Holt, a former Boehner aide, referring to the relative lack of leverage that House leadership has these days over individual members, compared with outside forces who threaten to mount challenges to their re-election bids.

Long Climb To The Top

None of this could have been what Boehner wanted when he finally reached the top spot after 20 years in the House.

Boehner himself was a rebel in his first term in Congress, part of the "Gang of Seven" freshman Republicans who prodded the institution to face up to the abuses of a banking scandal.

In 1994, he was part of the team that helped win the GOP its first House majority in 40 years and was rewarded with the fourth most powerful slot in the leadership.

He lost it four years later, after Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections. Rather than fade away, however, Boehner took over the chairmanship of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, helping craft laws covering pensions and school vouchers and working with Democratic Senate lion Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to pass the landmark education law known as No Child Left Behind.

"He's a serious legislator and these Band-Aid solutions can't be what he wanted his speakership to be about," Krueger says.

Leadership Frustrations

Typically, leaders who work out deals gain strength from them. Each win creates momentum going into the next fight.

In Boehner's case, every major bill that has passed into law with President Obama's signature has been seen as a setback that makes his troops more eager to dig their trenches deeper next time.

The fact that the budget process itself has come undone makes Boehner's job harder. Speakers in the past could help recalcitrant members see the light by promising goodies for their constituents. Just about all of them could use a new bridge for their district, or an expansion of the local VA hospital.

But with earmarks, or even the entire idea of appropriations bills setting new priorities each year, seemingly a thing of the past, the speaker has lost that kind of leverage.

"That process is either nonfunctioning or dysfunctional, so it limits the power leaders have," says Holt, a media strategist with HDMK, a communications and lobbying consulting firm.

Posing Problems For Anyone

Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies at American University, wonders whether Boehner isn't just about ready to pack it in.

"I think he sort of hopes to limp to the end [of his term] and then not run for Congress anymore," Thurber says. "It would be embarrassing to be there and be thrown out of the speakership."

Despite rumors that he will step down after the 2014 elections, Boehner is no quitter, Holt says. He recalls that after Boehner lost his leadership position back in 1998, the Ohio Republican sought to buck up his mopey staff.

"John stood up and said, 'Shhhh, listen people: No matter how you feel today, this is not the end,' " Holt says. "We believed him, and you can never count him out."

Boehner opened a news conference last Thursday by saying, "Oh, this ought to be a blast." But in general, if Boehner is frustrated, he's wearing that emotion lightly. He's continuing to issue statements and press releases placing the blame for the impending shutdown on Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Boehner has learned, Holt suggests, that politics and governance is a game without end. The speaker may indeed be resilient enough to get through the present crisis. But the job's not likely to get any easier.

"If the next speaker is a Democrat, they're going to have the same problems," Holt says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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