How John Boehner’s Tea Party Balancing Act Avoided a Government Shutdown

For Speaker John Boehner, the announcement of a deal funding the government caps one of the most dangerous period of his tenure as leader of his party, a long negotiation that tested his control of his members and his reputation with a general public that has yet to form a clear opinion on his leadership.

While he avoided a potentially disastrous shutdown, only time will tell whether he kept his hold on his party. Already some conservative Republicans are expressing their dismay at the deal.

“I think a lot of us are quite disappointed at the level,” Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told TPM.

“We really wanted more advancement on the life issue than was in the final package,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters after the deal was announced. “I think there’s a significant number of no votes.”

But others expressed relief at the saga being over: “I think that you’re going to see overwhelming support for this,” Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) told TPM.

The dueling quotes reflect long-simmering tensions between veteran Republican legislators like Boehner and an emergent conservative grassroots that helped deliver a strong majority in 2010 only two years after landslide defeat. Balancing their needs against each other and the responsibilities of governing have proven an all-consuming task for the Speaker that has defined his tenure as leader of the House GOP.The battle lines were first drawn in the wake of Obama’s election as a resurgent conservative movement helped pull the party dramatically to the right. Heading into the 2010 election, many Tea Party activists and candidates made clear that lip service to small government conservatism without serious cuts would splinter the movement. For some the benchmark was impossibly high — Freshman Senator Rand Paul warned he would not vote for any legislation that fails to balance the budget entirely and prominent Tea Party activists echoed his demands.

Republicans looked to excite their base with a “Pledge to America” that included a return to pre-stimulus spending, but the document drew a lukewarm reception from many activists even as they helped power the GOP to huge gains in the election. These lingering tensions became evident almost immediately after the GOP took office, when Republican leaders sparked a revolt in the caucus by proposing only $32 billion in cuts current spending levels. After a meeting with angry freshmen, many of whom rode Tea Party support to victory, Boehner relented and eventually upped the package to $61 billion.

That early uprising proved instructive as the same Establishment vs. Tea Party dynamic followed Boehner into the debate over a continuing resolution funding the government through September. As the negotiations dragged on, increasing numbers of Republicans bucked the GOP leadership and demanded a harder line. The split reached its peak on March 15, when 54 GOP representatives broke with the party to oppose a resolution temporarily funding the government, leaving Boehner to rely on Democratic votes in order to avoid a shutdown. With a bloc of conservative Republicans having made clear they had little appetite for any compromise at all, Boehner appeared to have no good options — either cut a deal with Democrats and face the wrath of his own party members or hold out and face a politically difficult shutdown. His rhetoric shifted towards preparing the party for a deal.

“Let me remind you that Republicans control one-half of one-third of our government,”
at a job creation forum on March 16. “It’s never been lost on me that because we only control the House there are a lot of other players that we need to work with in order to come to any agreement to keep the government open.”

Negotiations with the Senate and the White House intensified over the next two weeks and Democratic officials sounded confident that they were close to an agreement that would cut spending around $30 billion. But in late March, talks abruptly took a turn for the worse and Boehner’s public rhetoric returned to previous GOP talking points slamming Democrats for not passing their own plan in the Senate. Democrats, in turn, launched an all-out effort to paint Boehner as at the mercy of Tea Party, blaming conservative activists for scaring him off of a deal at the last minute.

“For the sake of our economy, it’s time for mainstream Republicans to stand up to the Tea Party and rejoin Democrats at the table to negotiate a responsible solution that cuts spending while protecting jobs,” Reid said in a March 26 statement after the GOP rejected the White House’s final offer.

His hold on the party thrown into question, observers began speculating whether his rivals were waiting in the wings to take over in the event of a conservative coup. In a testy exchange with Politico’s David Rogers, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the no. 2 Republican in the House, distanced himself from negotiations with President Obama, disavowing any knowledge of their latest offer. Rep. Mike Pence, who recently turned down a presidential run, became a vocal proponent of a shutdown even as Republican talking points avoided such rhetoric at all costs.

The final days heading into a looming shutdown fell into a dizzying pattern as both sides expressed renewed optimism at times only to quickly deteriorate into finger pointing when no deal materialized. All the while, Boehner repeatedly denied he was close to an agreement and emphatically downplayed any conflict between him and conservative members, who in turn rallied behind him and reportedly cheered when he instructed them to prepare for a shutdown. They weren’t alone as polls showed Republicans — and only Republicans — enthusiastic about such an outcome.

“Listen, there’s no daylight between the Tea Party and me,” Boehner told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on April 6. “None. What they want is they want us to cut spending. They want us to deal with this crushing debt that’s going to crush the future for our kids and grandkids. There’s no daylight there.”

It appeared that nothing could break the impasse. But in the final days, Democrats regrouped around a new message that sought to drive a new wedge within the party — this time between fiscal and social conservatives. Blaming Republican intransigence on a handful of policy riders concerning women’s health and abortion for causing the standoff, they managed to put Boehner on the defensive as few in the party were willing to debate social issues given the overwhelming importance of the economy to voters.

As the GOP struggled to regroup, key conservative Republicans began to signal they were ready to make a deal, offering Boehner the crucial protection on his right flank that he had up to that point lacked. On the Senate side, Tom Coburn and Pat Toomey, two pro-life conservatives, called on Boehner to drop the policy riders. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler offered a similar take. Bigger names, all with rock-solid social conservative credentials, began chiming in as well. In a jarring interview, possible presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told CNN that a shutdown was unwinnable for Republicans and that he would give up on defunding Planned Parenthood. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a potential 2012 presidential candidate as well and one of the most dangerous and unpredictable members on Boehner’s right, authored a post on RedState strongly suggesting the GOP would be better off holding its fire for later fights on the debt limit and on the 2012 budget. With Paul Ryan’s ambitious budget proposal, which would effectively end Medicare and make trillions in cuts, exciting the conservative base, the argument that the continuing resolution fight was relatively small potatoes carried extra resonance.

By Friday evening it appeared all but certain that the policy riders would be stripped in the final deal. By 11 PM, only an hour before a shutdown, officials had confirmed a $38.5 billion set of cuts were in place that preserved funding for Planned Parenthood.

Now it’s up to Boehner to sell it to the grassroots and any plan with President Obama’s and Harry Reid’s approval will automatically come with some resentment. But Boehner’s avoidance of a shutdown — while still securing significantly more cuts than his party originally demanded from Democrats — is by any standard an impressive feat of political agility. It also sets the stage for the coming debt limit and budget fights, all of which could potentially end in shutdown as well and which begin with both parties much farther apart on policy. Will he be able to repeat the trick as the stakes rise and the presidential primary season that adds an additional layer of politics?

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