John Boehner’s final act before he leaves Congress is to flip a middle finger at the renegade conservatives who have made his life miserable since he became speaker of the House of Representatives. Saying he needs to “clean up the barn” before he turns the gavel over to Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Boehner has made a budget deal with President Obama that will forestall any threat of a government shutdown or debt default until after a new president takes office in 2017.
Ryan has not sounded especially grateful for Boehner’s efforts. He is under pressure from the 40 radical conservative members of the so-called House Freedom Caucus to oppose Boehner’s deal with the devil in the White House. Ryan declared that the process by which the pact was reached “stinks.” That’s about as far as Ryan is likely to go in criticizing Boehner, however, because the departing speaker really has done the presumptive incoming speaker a huge favor. Ryan would have to make a similar deal with the president to avoid letting the government default on its bills in the coming weeks (just as he did as budget chairman two years ago), and that would have earned him the unforgiving ire of the conservative purists who do not believe in compromising on anything.
To show how crazy Republican politics have become, even the Freedom Caucus members are being branded as sellouts by some of their most militant constituents who are being riled up by the right-wing media and paleo-conservative interest groups. What is their supposed apostasy? Most of them have agreed to support Ryan for the speaker’s job, and the hard right does not trust Ryan’s conservative credentials, either on budget issues or on immigration.
The Freedom Caucus members insist they are as resolute as ever and point to guarantees Ryan made to win their support. Reportedly, Ryan agreed to block immigration reform as long as Obama holds office and promised to seek broad approval from the GOP caucus before allowing other controversial bills to be brought to the House floor for a vote. The question is whether the renegades will maintain their support when the balloting for speaker takes place Thursday if Ryan ends up supporting Boehner’s budget deal on Wednesday.
Republican voters have been showing a decided preference for outsiders in the presidential nomination contest so far, largely as a reaction against veteran GOP leaders, such as Boehner. Two of the dirtiest words among Republican voters these days are “professional politician,” and if anyone qualifies for that designation it is Paul Ryan, who has spent nearly his entire adult life in politics.
Still, many members of the Freedom Caucus are not exactly fresh off the turnip truck, either, even if they act like amateurs. The real battle within the GOP is not between professional politicians and a crew of yeoman farmers who set down their plows to come to the nation’s rescue, it is between conservative politicians who accept the fact that, sooner or later, the business of government needs to get done and conservative politicians who are convinced government is public enemy No. 1.
That latter faction has, once again, been outsmarted by Boehner, but the Republican rift is far from settled. It looks as if Ryan will get his chance to straddle the chasm in the months to come, unless his doubters decide he has already jumped to the wrong side.