Since taking the gavel in 2011, House Speaker John A. Boehner has looked like a man under siege, often captive to the whims of a rambunctious conservative flank looking for any excuse to oust him.
But not since 1947 has a Republican enjoyed the kind of House majority that Boehner will probably head next year. Combined with the new GOP-led Senate, Boehner has within his grasp the job he always envisioned: speaker of a robust majority that can broker deals with a like-minded Senate to force the White House to the negotiating table.
On Thursday, Boehner easily won his party’s support to head the newly enlarged Republican conference, putting him on a path to become the second-longest-serving Republican House speaker in history.
“To whom much has been given, much is expected,” a teary-eyed Boehner told his conference in a private meeting in the Capitol complex. His formal election as speaker will come after a vote of the full House in January.
But while his hold on power has never looked more secure, it’s unclear whether the Ohio Republican is ready or able to capitalize on it. In fact, the perma-bronzed, chain-smoking son of a bar owner seems to have gone out of his way in recent days to keep expectations in check, warning that President Obama could preemptively stifle the GOP-led legislative boom before it even begins, by taking executive action or using his veto pen.
So far Boehner has not articulated exactly what the GOP legislative agenda will be. Before the election, he outlined fairly broad priorities, including tax reform, spending restraints and expanded school choice. He promised the House would renew its effort to repeal the president’s healthcare law, though prospects for such legislation are dim in the closely divided Senate and would certainly be vetoed by the president.
Absent from that checklist is what strategists say will be crucial to broadening his party’s appeal: immigration reform. Boehner acknowledged the need to deal with the “very difficult issue,” but has yet to find a path supported by his rank-and-file. Last year when he announced with fanfare a plan to finally tackle it, his own members slapped him down in a matter of days.
The issue arose again Thursday, presenting Boehner with his first leadership test since the election. Leaders in both parties have been preparing a major spending bill that would fund the government through the fall of 2015, potentially clearing the deck for Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to start the new Congress without a budget fight looming or the threat of a government shutdown.
But some conservatives are pressing GOP leaders to pass only a short-term measure, perhaps of a month or two, in part to give Republicans leverage to counteract Obama’s likely executive action to grant legal status to about 5 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
“I told the president last week directly: If you proceed with executive amnesty, not only can you forget about getting immigration reform enacted during your presidency, you can also expect it to jeopardize other issues as well,” Boehner told his members Thursday, according to a source inside the meeting.
But the standoff would also be an unwelcome distraction for Boehner, endangering his ability to push through a legislative agenda in the coming year that will be key to his own legacy as he approaches what most expect to be his final term as speaker.
Boehner and his relatively new leadership team, which includes Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield in the No. 2 position as majority leader, may be treading carefully for now, waiting to gauge exactly how conservative and cooperative the new class of Republican House members will be. Some are tea party adherents like those who have vexed GOP leadership for years, while others were elected from more competitive swing districts who will need to appeal to a broader electorate to keep their jobs.
But with bolstered numbers, the election strengthened Boehner’s hand in battling the right flank of his own party.
Republicans already have secured 244 seats in the new House, with five races still too close to call or to be determined by runoff elections. That’s the most since 246 Republicans served in what President Truman derisively called a “do-nothing Congress” in his 1948 election campaign.
The expanded numbers may give Boehner room to work around what critics today call the “just-say-no” caucus, consisting of mostly small-government advocates opposed to virtually any new government program.
GOP leaders say Boehner’s negotiating clout has also been improved because several conservatives who battled the speaker in the past, including some elected in the tea party wave of 2010, appear to have learned the shortcomings of brinkmanship politics.
The GOP bore the brunt of last year’s highly unpopular government shutdown, a strategy advocated by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Now many of those lawmakers have softened their positions in an effort to show the party can lead.
“Now that we can actually fire with live ammunition, we can actually put legislation on the president’s desk,” said conservative Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “Now we have a lot more incentive to come together on legislation we can all be proud of, and that forces the president’s hand.”
For Boehner, the new dynamic “might be more fun for him,” Fleming said.
Boehner also can claim credit for helping build the new majority, holding 150 events for incumbents and candidates across the country in addition to raising more than $100 million for his and other Republican campaign committees.
Even those who have previously butted heads with Boehner, such as Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, say the internal party divisions have eased and leaders are more responsive, particularly since the elevation of McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the new GOP whip.
“This past year felt very different from our previous three,” said Schweikert, who was first elected in 2010. “They’re actually listening to some of my ideas.”
To be sure, many of the incoming freshmen are as much firebrands as those who came before.
Among them are Georgia’s Jody Hice, the Baptist minister and talk-radio host who fought the ACLU over displaying the Ten Commandments at a county courthouse; Montana’s Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who once reportedly called Hillary Rodham Clinton the “anti-Christ"; and Gary Palmer of Alabama, who is touted by leading conservative groups for his work heading the state’s premier conservative think tank.
Outside conservative groups — which have publicly clashed with Boehner over the last year — show no signs of backing down. Chris Chocola, a former GOP congressman and president of the Club for Growth, which has targeted Republican incumbents viewed as insufficiently conservative, said his organization would be closely watching how Boehner proceeded.
“I’ve always said that I think Boehner is personally a conservative,” Chocola said. “I wish he’d lead in a way that reflected his own voting record more aggressively, and this may be his opportunity to do that.”