Understanding John Boehner, reluctant ringleader of GOP shutdown politics

With House Republicans pushing for a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood, Speaker John Boehner's leadership is again under scrutiny – and under fire.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio holds a news conference following a House Republican caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington earlier this month. REUTERS/

House Speaker John Boehner likes to say he learned all the skills he needs for his current job during his childhood years in Ohio – mopping floors in his dad's bar and growing up with 11 brothers and sisters. In a two-bedroom house. With one bathroom.

That’s got to teach a person patience, and the Republican speaker has an abundance of it. Some say too much, especially when it comes to the latitude he gives his rebellious right-wing faction – such as right now.

With just 10 days before the federal government runs out of money, GOP hardliners are threatening the second widespread government shutdown in two years, this time over federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

They’re also considering a rare maneuver to oust Mr. Boehner from the speaker’s chair. It’s not the first time they’ve plotted to get rid of him.

Yet Boehner – “the coolest cucumber I know,” as one of his colleagues puts it – has been calmly exploring the options as the GOP leadership holds more than a half dozen “listening” sessions with members of the divided caucus. He still hasn’t found a funding solution that will satisfy everyone. He might not be able to. But pushing and prodding in his own unperturbed way, he won't stop trying.

“What Boehner does is, he’s very patient. He lets things play out for a while. He doesn’t get mad…. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t,” says John Feehery, former spokesman for Denny Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker.

It’s the tactics – not the ideology – that separate the speaker from his right flank. In 2013, when tea partyers forced a 16-day partial government shutdown over Obamacare, Boehner was as opposed to the Affordable Care Act as they were.

But he repeatedly warned against a shutdown. Failing to persuade, he eventually joined in, leading the way on several measures to delay or defund the president’s signature domestic program. On Day 16, after having exhausted all his options, he gave up the fight – and received a standing ovation from his caucus, hardliners included, for his efforts.

As he explained to the former late-night television host Jay Leno last year, “You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”

This time, Boehner is again in lockstep with the right flank on the substance of the issue. Videos showing officials of Planned Parenthood, a women’s health provider, discussing the sale of aborted fetus parts for scientific research are “gruesome,” he has said, and the federal government should stop funding the group.

Yet neither he nor Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky want to shut down the government over it. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood with a Democratic president in the White House is an “exercise in futility,” as Senator McConnell put it.

At a closed-door GOP caucus meeting last week, the House leadership shared internal polling that showed that two-thirds of respondents in 18 GOP swing districts oppose shutting the government to try to stop funding Planned Parenthood, according to Politico. In 2013, the GOP’s approval ratings plummeted in the wake of the shutdown.

That doesn’t mean much to Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana, who belongs to the House Freedom Caucus, a group of more than 40 hardliners formed this year to challenge the GOP leadership. Congressman Fleming says he’s one of 31 members who have pledged not to vote for legislation – be it a short-term or long-term budget – that funds Planned Parenthood. “That’s my conscience vote.”

And so the speaker has been patiently rolling out other options – investigations of Planned Parenthood in the House, legislation to freeze funding for the organization, and an abortion-related bill. Both bills passed the GOP-controlled House on Friday, but will be blocked by Senate Democrats.

And that’s where another leadership proposal comes in. In order to actually get a defunding bill to the president’s desk, they’ve proposed using a legislative process known as “budget reconciliation” that only needs a majority vote to pass. It would get to the president all right, but he would veto it.

Hardliners say they aren’t interested in this “show vote.” Instead they seem determined to press for the shutdown, and try to put the blame on the president.

As the speaker cycles through his options and the calendar clicks closer to a shutdown, some of his allies are getting frustrated with the repeated clashes. There was another one earlier this year over immigration and funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Boehner supporter Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California calls the hardliners “right-wing Marxists” who use extreme tactics to promote themselves – and then offer no realistic, alternative plans. The speaker, he says with exasperation, “let’s these guys get away with everything.”

Take the case of Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, who in July filed a rare motion to “vacate the chair” and call a new election for the speakership. Such a move hasn’t been tried in 105 years – and it didn’t succeed then.

The speaker could have killed off the Meadows resolution in the Rules Committee, which the speaker controls – but he didn’t. He could have brought it immediately to the floor for a vote he would have won, and stamped out the spark before it caught fire – as some of his allies urged. He didn’t.

"He chose not to press his advantage and divide his caucus," said Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma.

In July, Boehner called the Meadows move “no big deal,” but right-wingers are talking about returning to it after the pope’s visit this week. It is unlikely to succeed but nothing is certain.

Intraparty division is not new in Congress, says former House historian Ray Smock. He recalls the civil rights era, when both parties had deeply divided caucuses. But this is different, he says, because of the uncompromising wing of Boehner’s party.

“I think Boehner is seriously trying to run the House the way it’s supposed to be run, but this has been a losing proposition for him since the advent of the tea party,” says Mr. Smock. “You’ve got an awful lot of members in that caucus that don’t really care that government functions well. They’re elected as antigovernment people.”

Which raises the question: What’s the point of patience with recalcitrants?

Mr. Feehery says the free rein Boehner gave the tea partyers during the last shutdown could have been meant as a learning experience for them – but it simply emboldened them. Now it’s time for the speaker to make an example of a few people “and just kick them out of the conference.”

But then, Feehery admits, right-wing media would have a field day with that, and so would the “antiestablishment” presidential candidates.

And that’s not the Boehner way. “Members get not just second and third chances, they get repeated chances to operate as members of the team,” says Congressman Cole, a Boehner ally.

One thing’s certain: Democrats will not agree to defund Planned Parenthood. Boehner knows that. Eventually, he’ll have to work with Democrats to pass a “clean” funding bill that leaves the women’s health care provider alone.

What happens between now and then, though, is anybody’s guess.

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