Weak vs. weaker: Obama, Boehner struggle for leverage

President Obama and the House GOP will fight over immigration, spending and debt this fall, but it will be a battle of the weak versus the weak. [WATCH VIDEO]

Obama’s post-election momentum is gone and the deeply divided Republican majority has struggled to pass any consequential legislation.

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In Washington, a place obsessed by who is up and who is down, today’s answer is that everyone is down. Both sides are searching desperately and in vain for leverage.

Lawmakers say this equal feebleness will tighten the legislative gridlock that has gripped the Capitol since early in Obama’s first term. The president’s approval ratings have dipped into the 40s and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has proved unable to control his majority, which is dominated by conservatives with few incentives to compromise.

“You’ve got to have strength to bargain, and we’re better served, no question, by a strong Speaker,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior Boehner ally. “Our conference is, but I think the process is, too. I think the same thing is true with the president.”


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The dynamic represents a new twist on familiar fiscal fights. When House Republicans and Obama jousted over the budget in 2011, the GOP was ascendant, having just captured the House majority. But Obama regained the upper hand a year-and-a-half later with a reelection win that allowed him to dictate the terms of the fiscal cliff showdown.

His failure to win tighter gun controls and a series of controversies undermining public trust in his administration have ended Obama’s honeymoon, however, and threaten the only major agenda item that had momentum: immigration reform.

“You have a Congress that has different ideas and clearly a very weakened and sometimes an even confused president,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), a House Republican pushing for an immigration overhaul. “So how can we get major things done?

 “I ultimately think and am hopeful that the things that really have to get done will get done, that there will be a majority that can still work together, even across party lines,” he said. “But that remains to be seen.”

The government will run out of money at the end of September  and the Treasury Department estimates that the  debt ceiling will need to be raised in the fall. Republicans hope to draw Obama into a negotiation in which they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling without a deal to balance the budget in 10 years. The president has vowed not to negotiate over the debt limit as he did in 2011.

On immigration, it is Obama and Democrats who need Republicans to come to the table. Boehner says the House will not take up the Senate’s bipartisan legislation and is in no rush to address the issue despite pressure from establishment Republicans. The House is likely to reform immigration with several small-bore bills, but the Speaker says he will not set a deadline for action.


Julian Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University, says it is not surprising both parties are weak during the second presidential term but policy compromises are nevertheless possible.

During President Clinton’s second term, welfare reform and a deficit reduction plan emerged even though neither party had momentum.

“Sometimes deals come out of weakness, because lawmakers have given into the idea that they’ve lost and they want to take the issue off the table,” Zelizer said. “Republicans in the Senate basically gave up on immigration; they’re conceding that issue. We’ve seen Obama concede on the budget issue many times.

“I could see a deal coming out of someone acknowledging they’ve lost,” he added. “You just need one side to feel a little bit weaker.”

Democrats are frustrated by what they say is House Republican imperviousness to broad national support for some policies. Time and again, they appeal in public statements to Boehner to abandon his conservative wing which, in their view, is tying his hands and thwarting solutions to the nation’s biggest challenges.

“If you took away party labels, there is a majority, a healthy majority in this body, that would pass immigration reform, that would pass the debt ceiling, would pass a budget without shutting down the government,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. 

“If you allow that majority to work its will, this gridlock ends,” he continued. “But it will cost Speaker Boehner, almost certainly, his speakership.”

Democrats like Connolly blame the gerrymandering of congressional districts for creating what he called an “unpopularly elected” Republican majority that is “in power under protest,” having held the House despite losing the national vote to Democrats.

“I think Democrats have some leverage in this, in that they know and the Republicans know that actually, we got 1.5 million more votes than they did in the House elections, and that as a matter of fact, if we had neutrally drawn districts, we’d be in the majority,” Connolly said.

Republicans see it differently. 

Cole acknowledged that intraparty divisions had weakened the House GOP. Fissures were exposed this year in votes on the fiscal cliff and Hurricane Sandy relief funding, and more recently when the leadership failed in its first attempt to pass a farm bill. 

The key to a resurgence, Cole said, is winning incremental victories that would boost party unity. The leadership scraped together the votes for a revised farm bill last week, and the GOP is nearing a victory in a skirmish over student loan rates with Senate Democrats, he noted.

“We need to put some wins together,” Cole said. “It’s amazing when you start doing that and people see that sticking together leads to better results. Then they start wanting to be part of the team as opposed to throwing rocks at the team.”

Justin Sink contributed to this story