With eye on 2014, GOP welcomes Boehner's Senate-first strategy

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is passing the buck to the Senate and, in the process, he's lending a big hand to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.)

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Boehner's move to force the Democratic-led Senate to take the lead on enacting President Obama's agenda puts him squarely in line with a top McConnell priority — wresting control of the upper chamber from Democrats.

The Speaker has made it clear that he believes his one-on-one negotiations with Obama over the last two years allowed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his caucus to escape responsibility for taking politically-tough votes in the last two years, helping Democrats not only keep control of the Senate, but expand their majority in 2012.

As Boehner put it on Thursday, "those days are over."

The House, he indicated, has no intention of acting on the agenda Obama laid out in his State of the Union on Tuesday until Senate Democrats prove they can pass it first. That means no move to hike the minimum wage, no major gun-control legislation, no big climate change bill.

That strategy has some Senate Republicans salivating, hoping they will finally get to see vulnerable Democrats take the politically dangerous votes that Reid protected them from taking in 2011 and 2012.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), a member of the Republican leadership team, said he looked forward to seeing red-state Democrats like Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and others on the ballot in 2014 vote on a budget and gun-control legislation.

“I would welcome an opportunity to have votes on these [issues], as well as climate change,” Barrasso told The Hill, “just to have so many of these Democrat candidates have to choose between the president and their constituents back home whose opinions clearly oppose that of the president.”

Boehner’s strategy is another example of the coordination between him and McConnell. The Senate minority leader has also stepped up calls for Senate Democrats to bring bills to the floor rather than rely on last-minute deal-making on major issues.

While Boehner and McConnell have worked closely together for much of the past two years, tensions between House and Senate Republicans have occasionally spilled out in the public during the later stages of major negotiations.

Forcing the Senate to act was a key rationale for the House GOP’s move to suspend the debt ceiling while simultaneously conditioning member pay on the passage of a budget resolution through both chambers of Congress.

Republicans have complained that the Democratic-led Senate has not passed a budget in four years, and when Obama signed the debt-ceiling legislation earlier this month, it put Democrats in the upper chamber on record committing to a budget.

“You could argue already that the strategy is paying dividends in terms of getting the Senate to do its work,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican. “So I think it will put more pressure on Senate Democrats to actually have an agenda and actually require us to govern a little bit over here.”

Boehner’s office publicly insists that the Speaker’s strategy was not about helping Republicans win the Senate in 2014.

“It’s not about that,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “This is about getting the best public policy for the American people. In order for that to happen, Senate Democrats have got to take responsibility and do their job.”

Privately, House Republicans acknowledge that the move could have added political benefits for the party in Congress.

And for Boehner personally, the Senate-first policy relieves him of pressure at a time when he has had trouble persuading his fractious conference to pass any significant legislation.

After playing a starring role in the nonstop fiscal drama of the last two years, Boehner is more than happy to let Reid sweat in the spotlight for the next several months.

In the 112th Congress, Thune said, “the House was busy legislating and the Senate was essentially just biding its time.”

“It’ll force [Reid] to at least do some things,” he said of Boehner’s declaration.

Boehner’s strategy does carry both short-term and long-term risks.

The most immediate is in the blame game over $85 billion in automatic spending cuts through sequestration that are set to take effect on March 1. The Speaker has said the Senate must act first to replace them, pointing to legislation the House passed twice in 2012.

But the House bills are dead in the new Congress, opening House Republicans to criticism from Democrats that they are doing nothing to prevent deep cuts to military spending that both parties have criticized.

In the long-term, inaction on Obama’s agenda in the House could reopen Republicans to the obstructionist label Democrats stuck on them during Obama’s first term.

Boehner is betting that most of the president’s proposals won’t even make it past Democrats in the Senate, rendering that charge moot.

But if Reid has a more productive spring than Boehner is expecting, it will quickly ramp up pressure on the Speaker to allow House votes on legislation that may not garner majority Republican support.