WASHINGTON — For John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the honeymoon is over.
The 114th Congress was supposed to be a Golden Era for the Republicans to flex their muscle in the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency with their largest congressional majority in generations.
But the relationship between the emotional and jocular House speaker and the chilly and introverted Senate majority leader is already strained less than two months into the new era of Republican control.
The two leaders met privately on Wednesday, hours after Boehner’s surprising admission that they hadn’t spoken in two weeks. They face their first monumental test, on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security while placating their base’s fury over Obama’s unilateral initiatives on immigration to shield millions of people from deportation.
“You know, our staff talk back and forth and — listen, Senator McConnell has got a big job to do. So do I,” Boehner said, when asked about the lack of communication between the two.
But, a reporter protested, wasn’t it important that they speak to each other about an issue as important as keeping Homeland Security running?
“Our staffs have been talking back and forth,” he repeated.
McConnell teamed up with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Wednesday to advance the first stage of a plan to fund DHS without the immigration provisions. Their deal, pushed without Boehner’s support, jams the Speaker between forcing a shutdown and imperiling his leadership within his conference.
“I don’t know what the House will do,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday after announcing the tentative agreement with Reid.
Democrats are taking some glee in the Boehner-McConnell relationship woes.
“There’s trouble in paradise,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said with a chuckle. “I don’t understand. Let them explain their relationship.”
Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell on December 10, 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
It would be a mistake to assume the problems are personal between Boehner and McConnell. In fact, the two men who have enjoyed what was by most accounts a warm relationship for the previous eight years leading their conferences despite having very different personalities. “I know they have a good relationship, but I don’t know enough about the details of what’s going on to comment, really,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told TPM.
The current rift is structural, a product of the mismatch in expectations and incentives given the unique internal and electoral dynamics of the House and the Senate.
Unlike Boehner, McConnell needs bipartisan support to govern, given Democrats’ aggressive use of the filibuster. Unlike House Republicans, most of whom hail from safe GOP districts and only have to worry about right-wing challengers, McConnell’s majority faces a serious threat in 2016 — he has 24 members facing reelection (while Democrats have 12 seats in play), a half-dozen in blue states whose political lives depend on appealing to a broader electorate.
Internally, too, they face different landscapes. Boehner deals with constant threats to his speakership from within — he faced a record 25 defections in January, and his leadership is again threatened if he caves in the DHS funding fight. McConnell, meanwhile, has a strong hold over his conference and was unanimously elected majority leader after the 2014 election.
“This is what sets up the next two years,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) told reporters this week. “If we’re gonna let Harry Reid dictate what the House can pass and can do now, then for the next 22 months that’s what we’ll expect, which would be very disappointing for conservatives.”
The discord was on display earlier this month when McConnell, facing repeated Democratic filibusters on House-passed legislation to fund DHS and block Obama’s immigration moves, said it was up to the House to pass a different bill. Boehner swiftly rejected the plea.
“I love Mitch,” the Speaker snarked. Then he tossed the ball back in McConnell’s court.
The DHS funding fight is just the beginning. The Boehner-McConnell relationship will face many tough challenges in the coming months, including passing a budget, dealing with a Supreme Court ruling that could throw the health care system in disarray, raising the debt limit and keeping the government open this fall when funding expires again.
If their current struggles are any indication it will be a long two years for both leaders.
“I don’t know their relationship,” House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY), a Boehner ally, told reporters. “There’s such a thing as staff that do things when us leaders may be silent.”