How John Boehner escaped disaster

In the midst of a rebellion from his own colleagues, John Boehner faced a big decision.

It was 10 p.m. last Thursday, the most stressful moment of his Speakership.

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Boehner’s debt-limit bill was short on votes, and the GOP leadership was forced to change the measure so it could attract the support of recalcitrant members.

With dozens of reporters staking out the Speaker’s office and Democrats trying to contain their glee, Boehner could have pressed to work through the night to move the amended bill early Friday morning. 


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The Ohio Republican, characteristically calm, had another plan. He told the battle-weary team of GOP leaders holed up in his office that he was going to postpone the vote until Friday.

It was, to say the least, an unusual move. Delay usually means death for bills, and there were whispers that Boehner’s Speakership was on the line.

“I know I’m going to take a hit in the press, but we need to do this in the light of day,” Boehner told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and leadership aides. 

Some objected, but Boehner, having lived through prior GOP arm-twisting eras, held firm. 

Friday’s newspapers highlighted the chaos that had engulfed the House GOP, focusing on Boehner’s inability to control his conference.

A source close to Boehner said the setback actually helped make the final deal possible. Boehner had taken a political hit, but he could argue that the White House had to bend to get a final measure through the lower chamber.

Boehner revised his bill, including new provisions on a balanced-budget agreement. It narrowly passed Friday, generating some momentum and leverage for the GOP and, most importantly, averting further damage.

Throughout his career, Boehner has shown he can withstand a punch. He lost his leadership position in 1998 and later climbed back up the leadership ladder.

A lawmaker close to Boehner said, “I think John’s calculated decision to pull back and take what everybody perceived to be a loss on something that really wasn’t important on Thursday — John’s always had a much better understanding of the big picture than little battles, and that’s what it was, a little battle in the overall war.” 

Boehner’s tone Friday during an address to his anxious House GOP conference was also key to picking up the pieces. Some anticipated an ugly meeting, with finger-pointing between leadership and rank-and-file members. That didn’t happen.

With a smile on his face, Boehner said he woke up at 5:30 a.m. believing “he was going to have a wonderful day.” 

He called on Republicans not to snipe at one another, stressing the importance of unity.

“I love you all … I love some of you a little more than others today,” Boehner joked, easing the tension.

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy (R), who along with his fellow four Palmetto State colleagues had been firm “no” votes, came away impressed.

Calling the whipping operation “awesome,” the freshman said that his leadership team “respected the fact that reasonable minds can differ and there’s been no pressure, no intimidation.” 

In the Tom DeLay era, Gowdy would have faced punishment of some kind, such as being passed over for a key committee. Leadership aides say Gowdy and others will not be penalized.

Some in the conference, however, want Boehner to use the power of intimidation.

“People are frustrated … friends are frustrated with him because of that, because people think he’s being taken advantage of,” a Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity said. “But that’s just not his style.” 

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), known for breaking with his party on a range of issues, voted for Boehner’s bill on Friday. 

Jones said he backed the legislation “to give [Boehner] strength he would need as a negotiator, and I was afraid that if we couldn’t pass the Boehner bill on Friday night, it would weaken his position as a negotiator.”

Jones ultimately opposed the final deal, but noted the change in leadership styles.

“As a team with Eric and Kevin, they did what they had to do. The days of Tom DeLay are gone.”

While dealing with the challenges of his own conference, Boehner was also waging battles with the White House and Senate Democrats. 

GOP aides and lawmakers, speaking on background, portrayed Boehner as the calm negotiator who repeatedly exasperated President Obama.

Boehner last month asked the networks to televise his response to Obama’s address to the nation, a request which infuriated the White House, Republican sources said. 

On July 23, they claim, the White House called Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), telling her not to participate on a call with Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Pelosi informed Reid, who declined to participate, and the call was canceled, the Republican sources said. (A Pelosi spokesman could not be reached for comment.)

Later that day, the four leaders met with Obama at the White House. At one point, GOP officials said, the Democratic and Republican leaders asked Obama and his aides to leave the room to let them negotiate. 

A tentative deal was subsequently struck, but Obama privately threatened to veto it, the sources said.

Reid has repeatedly denied that he ever signed off on such an agreement.

The following day, staffers for Boehner, Cantor, Reid and McConnell continued to work on an agreement, according to Republicans.

After more twists and turns — and involvement from Vice President Biden — a bipartisan deal was reached a week later.

Seventy-three percent of House Republicans voted yes as 50 percent of House Democrats voted against their president. 

Boehner did not escape the debt-limit debate unscathed, and Republicans who know him contend he weathered the storm as well as could have been expected.