What messy budget vote says about Boehner's ability to control his caucus

The $1.1 trillion spending bill narrowly passed 219 to 206 Thursday night, after rebellious hard-liners on the right and angry liberals on the left fought all the way to a nail-biting, if successful, conclusion.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio goes into a closed-door meeting with the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. Amid last-minute brinkmanship that has become a trademark in Washington, the House narrowly approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill to avoid a government shutdown Thursday night.

Getting a budget over the finish line was one tough slog for House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio on Thursday. Rebellious hard-liners on the right and angry liberals on the left fought him all the way to a nail-biting, if successful, conclusion.

It should get easier for Mr. Boehner next year though.

That’s when he has a larger Republican majority to work with – including several members from blue districts in states such as Illinois, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Iowa.

“Boehner’s hand will be stronger,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“Not only will Republican ranks be larger, but a number of the new members will not be tea party folks. They will be ‘Boehner Republicans’ not ‘Cruz Republicans,’” says Mr. Pitney, referring to Sen. Ted Cruz, the tea party darling from Texas who led the way to last year’s partial government shutdown.

Unable to win over dozens of hard-line Republicans – 67, according to the final vote count – Boehner needed Democrats to pass the last-minute $1.1 trillion budget before the government officially ran out of money at the end of Thursday. The bill funds all but one department through the end of September. It also provides emergency funding for battling the Ebola outbreak and fighting the Islamic State.

But Democrats, cheered on by leader Nancy Pelosi of California – and by liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – were not buying. They didn’t like that the bill rolled back certain financial industry and campaign finance reforms, despite the fact that these rollbacks had been agreed to in bipartisan negotiations with Senate Democrats.

Voting was delayed for hours, and House Democrats held a closed-door conference where they were lobbied by the White House chief of staff to back the bill. Rep. Steve Israel of New York – who oversaw the Democrats’ midterm drubbing – emerged, and with tea-party-like fervor spoke of the need to “draw a line in the sand” against big-bank and big-donor bailouts.

“A lot of them wanted to break some china before the table is reset in January,” says Pitney, speaking of the Democrats who voted against the bill. Eventually, 57 Democrats voted for the bill, which passed 219 to 206 and now awaits Senate action.

Wanting to prove that Republicans can govern, Boehner has promised no more shutdowns – even as he has worked to accommodate hard-liners. Last week, for instance, the GOP leadership brought a symbolic bill to the floor that declared the president’s executive immigration action null and void. The legislation had no future with a Democratic Senate and Democratic president to block it.

The budget bill, too, takes on the president, but not in the way that hard-liners wanted. By funding the Department of Homeland Security – which administers the president’s immigration executive action – only through Feb. 27, the GOP has set up a showdown over immigration for early in the new year. The right flank wanted that fight now. 

Since their wave election in 2010, tea partiers have pushed back against the GOP leadership, earning them the nickname, the “hell no” caucus. They’ve rattled markets and the public by refusing to increase the debt limit. Last year, they led the way to a partial government shutdown over funding for the Affordable Care Act.

But when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 6, the speaker will have a bigger “buffer” against his right flank as a result of the midterms, which have given House Republicans their largest majority in more than 80 years – 247 seats if a recount in Arizona goes their way.

“The tea party element was marginally strengthened, but Boehner did succeed in winning a larger buffer; now he can afford to lose around 29 Republicans instead of 16,” says Dave Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, in an e-mail.

Additionally, a bigger group of House Republicans from blue districts are going to have some political incentive “to be at least a little bit more moderate than other members of their caucus,” writes Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, also in an email.

This group would also be the first ones punished in any backlash against a GOP-run Congress in 2016, “so you can bet they will want to avoid truly destructive showdowns with the president,” Mr. Kyle adds. 

But not everyone believes Boehner will have an easier time of it in the next Congress.

For instance, there’s a danger in promising House hard-liners greater success when the Senate comes under GOP control next year, says Norman Ornstein, a longtime political observer with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Democrats such as Sen. Warren will still be able to use the filibuster to block legislation, and of course, the president has his veto pen.

Mr. Ornstein says it may also be harder for Boehner to keep his right flank under control, despite the buffer. More members mean more people who can say no – and point to the other guy to provide a yes vote. And if Boehner leans too far toward the “blue” GOP caucus or has to rely on Democrats for votes – as he did Thursday – that will further anger the hard-liners.

“How many get-out-of-jail-free cards can you use?” Mr. Ornstein asks.

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