The schedule was shot – final votes on a massive bill to fund the government past March 4 had been set for Thursday -- the House floor had just erupted in hoots and shouts, and John Boehner, Speaker of the House for just 45 days, was beaming.
“This was like diving off a 50-foot diving board your first dive – to do all of government,” the Ohio Republican told a handful of reporters in an impromptu meeting Friday night, just off the House floor. “There’s no example of the People’s House better than what you’ve seen here. They’ve had a real debate, and they loved it.”
Not everyone loved it. Senior Democrats – who had seen their legacy on issues ranging from health care reform and financial regulation to greening initiatives in the Capital defunded by the new majority this week – called it a travesty.
“The only good thing about it is that it will go nowhere,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, whose signature Wall Street reform law was drained of resources by floor votes this week.
But for the bumper crop of Republican freshmen – the engine of the new majority – this week marked a decisive coming out.
Many waited until late Friday night to present their own amendments to an omnibus bill to scale back a projected $1.6 trillion deficit for FY 2011. The right to offer amendments on legislation had all but disappeared in the highly polarized House in recent years. For a freshman to have a shot at amending a bill was an event rarer still.
This week, a dozen GOP freshmen stood up on the floor to manage their own amendments. By the end of the week, the time allotted to make their case on the floor had dropped to three minutes, including time to offer to colleagues supporting your amendment.
A new voice for farmers
Rep. Christie Koem (R) of South Dakota wanted to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from modifying air quality standards on farm dust.
“Farmers have enough uncertainty,” said Ms. Koem, a rancher whose spirited campaign and unconventional style won her a place in the House Republican leadership as a liaison to the freshmen class. Freshman Rep. Rick Crawford (R) of Arkansas backed her up.
“EPA must come to realize that our food is grown in the dirt and in the process of making it, we’re going to stir up a little dust,” he said.
Speaking against the amendment, 19-term Rep. Henry Waxman, former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, cautioned that small particulates can get into the lungs and that the Koem amendment “stops EPA from setting a standard that might be tighter, if the science dictates.”
But the new House majority was having none of it. The Koem amendment passed, 255 to 168, with 21 Democrats joining all but 4 Republicans in support.
In the end, they lopped off nearly $62 billion of spending for the fiscal year that began last October. The bill passed 235 to 189, with only three Republicans breaking ranks to vote with Democrats.
Freshmen wanted deeper cuts
The freshmen pushed for more. A conservative amendment to lop off another $22 billion fell short, as senior Republicans, including majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, broke ranks with more conservative members and voted with Democrats to reject the measure. (The Speaker of the House rarely votes.)
In the old command-and-control style House, that rift could be viewed as a challenge to leadership. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California maintained famously tight discipline in Democratic ranks, allowing not a single a single amendment on health care reform.
Boehner says it’s just what he wants.
“This open debate is teaching a lot of members to be legislators,” he said, in remarks to journalists on Friday. “Half of the freshmen have never served in public office. Allowing them to participate in this will speed up their development as legislators.”
This is vintage Boehner, who helped lead the Republican revolution that took back the House in 1995, then fell out of leadership in the hard-driving, top-down Speakership of Newt Gingrich, the first Republican Speaker in more than 40 years.
Even then, Boehner’s mantra was: “What do we have to fear from letting the House work its will?” Now, he has a chance to test the thesis.
“If we’re able to continue with as open a process as we can have, it will drive major change in the institution,” he said on Friday. “With an open process that respects the work of committees, you’ll see more working across the aisles and more healthy debate…. All of our differences get thawed out on the floor of the House.”
'My job is not to enforce my will'
Asked whether he can control the 87-member freshmen class, he said: “Our job is not to have control over them. That’s not the way the House should be run…. My job is to protect the institution, not enforce my will … to restore an institution that has been badly damaged over a long time.”
That’s exactly what concerns Senate Democrats, who now must decide how to come to terms with a bill that both majority leader Harry Reid and President Obama have rejected.
Boehner announced on Thursday that he will not accept an extension of the continuing resolution (CR) now funding government without spending cuts. If the House and Senate do not agree on a bill to fund the government by March 4, the government shuts down.
“We’re terribly disappointed that Speaker Boehner can’t control the votes in his caucus to prevent a shutdown of government. And now he’s resorting to threats to do just that, without any negotiations,” said Senator Reid, in a brief press conference on Thursday. “That is not permissible. We will not stand for that. He’s wrong.”
On the House side, Democrats say that a shutdown is looking more likely if Boehner cannot rein in his troops.
Democrats: 'Boehner is being reckless'
Boehner’s comments that he cannot control the freshmen are an “honest admission,” but by refusing to accept anything from the Senate but more cuts, “the Speaker has put himself in a corner,” Andrews adds. “It’s reckless.”
“Many Democrats hope that Boehner has the strength to lead them, because we have to make compromises,” says Congressman Frank. “You have to show some responsibility, if you become Speaker.”
Maybe so, but the 87-member out-of-control gorilla in the room is also a powerful bargaining chip. Responding to criticism when he failed to pass legislation sent over by then-majority House Democrats, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said: I can count. I don’t have the votes.
Boehner and the freshmen are facing two other major votes on spending: Next, a vote to pass a budget resolution for FY 2012 and, later this spring, a highly controversial vote to raise the national debt limit above $14.3 trillion.
“These will be the most important two or three months we’ve seen in this town in a decade,” he said, on Friday. Then, he smiled.