Quiet Season On Capitol Hill Exposes Boehner’s Deep Challenges

March 23, 2012 2:03 a.m.

John Boehner’s never had strong control over his conference. Since he became House Speaker last January he’s needed Democratic help to advance every must-pass bill.

That was true from the first government shutdown battle last spring, through the debt-limit showdown last summer, and into the payroll tax cut fight, which left Republicans in political dark territory from the end of 2011 through February of this year.

But now that the calendar’s mostly clear of “must-do” items, a series of smaller imbroglios has exposed the fact that Boehner’s members can’t unite behind even the simplest, most politically innocuous measures. Now it’s reached the point where even Senate Republicans are outwardly admitting that their House counterparts don’t have their act together.On Thursday, the Senate passed a modest House bill aimed at loosening rules restricting capital formation. Senate Democrats and Republicans had hoped to be able to amend it to raise the U.S. export/import bank’s $100 billion loan limit. This is a big deal for powerful Republican interest groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. But a significant faction of House Republicans view the bank as a distorter of the free market and are vehemently opposed. That forced Senate Republicans to ride to Boehner’s rescue and vote the measure down.

“It [the export-import bank measure] complicates passage in the House, sure,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the GOP leadership, conceded to reporters earlier this week.

So you’re tossing Boehner a life line?

“Well. Exactly,” Thune said. “I think we are. He may not think so, sometimes what we think helps him he doesn’t think helps him”

A similar morass is bogging down a long-term reauthorization of the highway bill, which passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis last week.

The transportation bill is usually a delicious piece of sausage-making cake. Legislators from both parties devour it, no matter how different their political tastes. This year, though, House Republicans have been unable to set aside internal differences to pass even a partisan reauthorization as a bargaining chip. Earlier this month, Boehner warned his conference — and told reporters — that if House members couldn’t set aside their differences, he would put the Senate bill, or something very similar, on the House floor and advance it with overwhelming support of Democrats.

That could still happen. But late last week, GOP leaders decided instead to move ahead with a temporary extension of the existing highway bill.

On Thursday, at his weekly Capitol briefing, reporters pressed Boehner to explain what happened.

The transportation bill, Boehner allowed, “used to be very bipartisan. It was greased to be bipartisan with 6,371 earmarks. You take the earmarks away and guess what! All of the sudden, people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it.”

This is true as far as it goes. But the Senate bill passed with over 70 votes, sans earmarks. Boehner seemed to think he could pass it in the House as well. Now that’s not so clear.

“We’re continuing to work with our members on how best to address rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, and addressing rising gas prices and the need to have more energy production,” Boehner added when pressed.

House conservatives also recently won an internal fight over funding for the federal government next year. The GOP budget, which is expected to pass on the House floor next week, breaks faith with the debt limit deal by setting discretionary spending caps below the levels Boehner and Democratic leaders agreed to last July. That could lead to exactly the sort of election year government shutdown fight many Republicans would rather avoid.

But even the easy stuff isn’t easy these days.

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