WASHINGTON — House Speaker John A. Boehner rose to power on the conservative tea party revolt, but the Ohio Republican is proving on many issues to be Washington’s most flexible speaker in years — a reluctant bipartisan.
On top issues, when the hard-charging rhetoric came to a close, Boehner repeatedly has done something recent predecessors in both parties generally refused to do: He has left his intransigent troops behind and reached across the aisle to pass legislation.
The latest example came Thursday as the House approved President Obama’s preferred version of the Violence Against Women Act. The speaker allowed the bill to come to the floor after he was unable to rally votes for a more limited Republican alternative.
That was the third time this year that Boehner has abandoned the practice of bringing bills to a vote only if they have the support of a majority of the speaker’s party. The “fiscal cliff” deal and legislation to provide relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy were accomplished with bipartisan House votes in the face of conservative opposition.
The moves have not come about because Boehner suddenly embraced compromise as a preferred alternative. Instead, the speaker has made a calculation that the long-term interests of Republicans in some cases require going against the most conservative members of the caucus. The result has been movement on some major issues that stalled last year, partially contradicting Washington’s image as a place of unrelenting gridlock.
His actions have angered some conservatives. “I prefer it not happen,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said after Thursday’s vote. But when other conservatives challenged Boehner’s hold on the speakership in January, they lost badly. So far, Boehner’s moves do not seem to have jeopardized his standing.
In the case of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides state and local governments with money to help investigate and prosecute domestic violence, Republican strategists feared that keeping the bill in Iimbo could expose the party to complaints they were hostile to women. The bill passed handily, despite the objections of more than half the Republican majority. It’s on its way to Obama’s desk for his signature.
As Congress begins work on immigration reform and gun violence, two top White House priorities, that willingness to allow legislation to move ahead without majority support of his caucus may make Boehner an unlikely partner.
Immigration reform, for example, is an important issue for Republicans as they try to reach out to Latino voters who have voted in increasing numbers against the party. But many conservatives in the House oppose proposals that would give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Supporters of a bipartisan bill being crafted in the Senate hope Boehner will eventually let it come to a vote even without a majority of House Republicans. Similar calculations might figure into the debate over gun legislation if any bill passes the Senate.
The budget battles that have dominated Washington recently may be an exception as they get waged on the most partisan legislative landscape. Although Boehner has allowed budget issues to come to a vote with Democratic help, it is uncertain whether he would do so again. His party is now largely defined by the issue of holding down government spending.
But Thursday’s vote was a reminder that Boehner is capable of a level of cooperation that belies his image as the chain-smoking speaker who on more than one occasion has voiced a hearty “Hell, no!” to the president’s agenda.
Boehner has long said one of his goals as speaker is to let the House “work its will.”
But he also has had to conform to circumstances. Democrats control the Senate and the White House, giving Boehner considerably less clout than past speakers J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) during President George W. Bush’s presidency or Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) during Obama’s first term. The policy of not allowing bills on the floor without a “majority of the majority” is often called the “Hastert Rule” after the former speaker, who generally adhered to it when he led the House, from 1999 to 2007.
Boehner has always been a more laid-back manager, not one to twist arms — though he has hauled rebellious lawmakers into his office for talks and recently had a hand in bouncing four conservatives from their committees.
But his record of violating the Hastert Rule also reflects the nature of the members he leads. Many lawmakers ushered in on the 2010 tea party wave have not accepted the usual Washington rules, including the idea that withholding votes in the pursuit of perfect legislation can leave their leaders no choice but to cut a deal with Democrats.
On the domestic violence bill, Boehner pared back provisions conservatives disliked, but they still balked at the cost and reach of the legislation.
“This is another case where the leadership has to save the members from themselves,” said John Feehery, Hastert’s former spokesman, who coined the term Hastert Rule in a speech he wrote for his boss.
“If Republicans want to help themselves with the gender gap, they had to pass this into law,” Feehery said. “The Hastert Rule worked well in the Bush era. It works less well given the current configuration of Congress in the Obama era.”