Boehner takes backseat as GOP grapples with debt, immigration

Ask Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan Can Jim Jordan become top House Republican? Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE a question on a key issue these days, and you’re likely to get a variation of the same response: Talk to someone else.

The Speaker has maintained a lower-key presence in recent months, largely avoiding the spotlight and abandoning the deal-making ambitions of his first two years in office.

Whether the matter is immigration, guns, budget talks or online sales taxes, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan Can Jim Jordan become top House Republican? Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE (R-Ohio) routinely defers or deflects questions to committee leaders.

As he said he would at the outset of the 113th Congress, the Speaker has sought to re-empower House committees and allow his members to drive policy-making in a smaller Republican majority.

The shift will be tested in the coming months as Boehner faces a series of decisions on immigration, the debt limit and a widening congressional inquiry into the Obama administration's response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Yet it has won positive reviews from the conservatives who chafed under his leadership in 2011 and 2012.

“We are working together more closely, and I’m delighted that major issues are being vetted by rank-and-file members and our views are being considered more often,” second-term Rep. Cynthia LummisCynthia Marie LummisLobbying world Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Despite a battle won, 'War on Coal' far from over MORE (R-Wyo.) said. “So I’m just tickled pink.”

Boehner’s softer touch is most apparent in his approach to the debt limit. In 2011, the Speaker traveled to New York to deliver a major economic address to declare that the House would not increase the nation’s statutory borrowing limit without equivalent or greater spending cuts and reforms. The policy became known as the “Boehner rule,” and the Speaker served at various points over the next two years as the GOP’s sole negotiator with President Obama on fiscal matters.

Boehner has made no such speech this time around, and while he insists his rule on increasing the debt limit still stands, the Republican leadership is undergoing extensive discussions with rank-and-file members on a wide range of policy options before it announces how it will handle the next debt ceiling hike this summer. The full House GOP will hold a two-hour meeting next week to discuss the matter.

“What do our members believe is necessary in order to allow them to vote yes in increasing the debt limit?” Boehner asked at a press conference Thursday, highlighting the question at the heart of the debt-limit discussions.

On immigration, the Speaker has made clear he wants the House to act, but he has forestalled any decisions as to how. He has backed the efforts of the House Judiciary Committee and a separate, bipartisan group of House negotiators, yet he has studiously steered clear of staking out a position on comprehensive Senate legislation or the central question of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Yet immigration reform advocates on both sides of the aisle believe it will ultimately fall to Boehner to determine the fate of Obama’s top second-term priority, either by navigating a comprehensive bill through conservative opposition or by allowing critics to win out by undermining the legislation through procedural delays.

With the House falling behind the Senate on immigration legislation, proponents of the Senate bill hope it will pass with enough bipartisan backing to force Boehner to bring it directly to the floor — a move that would raise hackles among conservatives.

“I just want to say this: The House is going to work its will on immigration reform,” Boehner said Thursday. “This is an issue that — that has been around far too long, and needs to be dealt with. And I intend to see that it's dealt with.”

Under pressure from conservatives, Boehner has gradually stepped up his role in pressing the Obama administration to cooperate more fully with a congressional inquiry into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. But he has resisted a push by more than half of the Republican conference to appoint a joint select committee on the matter.

Boehner has allowed Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election Scalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement MORE (R-Va.) to craft the House GOP’s legislative agenda, and he has consented to floor votes on items that conservatives have demanded but that party leaders acknowledge stand little chance of becoming law, such as a repeal of the 2010 healthcare overhaul or allowing the U.S. Treasury to prioritize debt payments if the nation’s borrowing limit is breached.

Democrats say the House GOP is adrift, wasting entire weeks on small-bore legislation because it cannot rally around a substantive or realistic agenda.

But there has been little complaining from conservatives, who praise Boehner for soliciting their input and sticking to an agreement he struck with them at the party’s January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., which set the majority’s strategy on fiscal matters.

“The deal that we struck in Williamsburg continues to play out the way that we said that it would,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a second-term conservative who refused to vote for Boehner for Speaker in January. “John’s been very effective as our leader, and I think we’ve been having some success.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) also pushed for Boehner to stay the course.

“I don’t think we’re adrift,” he said. “There’s a burden to leadership, and at some point there’s always going to be an issue where you have to make a decision, one way or another, and inevitably somebody’s not going to be happy about it. But to me, it’s been working, and it ought to continue.”

Lummis said the onus is on the rank-and-file to respond constructively to the leadership’s overtures. If Boehner’s laid-back approach leads to indecision and a power vacuum, she said, “he will have to fill [it].”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said House Republicans have succeeded in re-ordering the spending fights to the party’s advantage, passed a budget that balances in 10 years and forced the Democratic-led Senate to pass a budget for the first time in four years.

“The people’s House is doing the people’s business,” Steel said.