Boehner exit to test cohesion of Republican Party
WASHINGTON — The gulf between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans has grown so wide that it just swallowed up the speaker of the House and may threaten the Republican Party and Congress itself.
The question is whether anyone can tame the House’s rabble-rousing faction now that Speaker John Boehner has chosen to resign rather than brave a possible vote to depose him. The stakes are sky-high, with critical deadlines to keep the government running and raise the nation’s borrowing limit on the horizon.
With the GOP presidential contest riding an anti-establishment wave, it has become practically compulsory for candidates to denounce Republican congressional leaders at the first sign of compromise, which makes deal-making that much tougher in Congress — even as some fear it could harm the party’s chances at the White House.
The long-running drama of establishment vs. insurgency played out anew Friday on Capitol Hill as Tea Party conservatives cheered Boehner’s announcement that he will leave his job at the end of October. The move will ensure that the government stays open into December because the 13-term Ohio lawmaker rejected conservative demands to dare President Obama to veto a government spending bill that cuts money for Planned Parenthood.
Boehner’s announcement only puts off that fight and others while promising a chaotic leadership struggle that may result in leaders confronting the same fundamental problem: a core group of 30 or so conservative lawmakers repulsed by compromise and commanding enough votes to stymie leadership plans, despite the GOP’s large majority.
“You’re going to have a new speaker who is going to have to wonder if he or she is going to be the next person losing their head,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. “We are a tough group to lead. We are a really tough group to lead.”
Boehner made his announcement the day after meeting with members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-liners dedicated to fighting for conservative principles at any cost. Several of those lawmakers informed Boehner that they would support a floor vote to oust him from the speakership.
Rather than put the House through the turmoil of such a vote, which hasn’t been tried in more than 100 years, Boehner told stunned lawmakers he would leave Congress next month. He endorsed his deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy is favored to prevail, though he drew a challenger in Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., a former speaker of the House in Florida who challenged Boehner earlier this year.
Boehner’s announcement delighted the hard-line conservatives even as it dismayed many more establishment-minded members. Many of those lawmakers urged strategies to neutralize the hard-line crowd and short-circuit tactics. Two years ago, those tactics resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown over Obama’s health care law. Many Republicans believe that impasse damaged their party.
“I’m sure some of those guys have Cheshire grins right now,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. He advocated a strong line against them: “ ‘If you’re not willing to govern, we will make you marginal and irrelevant, and we will find those who will help us.’ ”
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally, said, “We have to govern here. We don’t get to go on talk radio and say whatever we want.”
Yet Boehner’s move seemed to embolden the hard-liners. Several on Capitol Hill and off suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be their next target, and the group Tea Party Patriots began circulating a petition for his removal.
McConnell had pledged that the GOP Congress would show voters that Republicans can govern in the run-up to the 2016 elections. But conservatives complain that the GOP takeover of the Senate this year has not yielded results, and now a House run by less-proven leaders may test McConnell’s promise further.
“Mitch McConnell is infinitely worse as a leader than Boehner. He surrenders at the sight of battle every time,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., one of the rebels. “We made a lot of promises to the American people that if we took the Senate that we would do certain things, and those things have not been accomplished.”
Democrats were at turns gleeful at the GOP discomfort and grim over the turmoil it portends. Some lawmakers in both parties hope Boehner will use the month remaining in his tenure to jam through politically painful votes, including highway funding legislation and a renewal of the Export-Import Bank, which Republicans allowed to expire this year.
“These people don’t want government. They just want their way or the highway,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. He said those who challenged Boehner are “not going to be satisfied until there is total chaos.”
Responding to the upheaval in their party, Republican leaders and outside groups such as the Chamber of Commerce have worked diligently in recent cycles to elect mainstream candidates.