Opinion: Boehner’s impossible job

It must be hell to be Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The failed vote on the Farm Bill has made this open season on his leadership skills. The Speaker brought the bill to the floor expecting to get conservative support but instead got embarrassed.

That just added to the fires burning at Boehner’s feet.

For the last month, conservatives at the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth have been complaining that he is not a true conservative. As proof of his conservative credentials, they want him to allow a House vote on an immigration reform bill only if it has support from the majority of House Republicans. But that is impossible when far right Tea Party House members — whose support is necessary to form a GOP House majority — delight in opposing any immigration bill giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

When Boehner has played to House right-wing populism by allowing votes on dead-end bills with no chance of passage in the Senate — one killing the Dream Act, another a fiercely anti-abortion bill — the critics bashed him for being out of step with the voters’ concerns.

“The stupidity is simply staggering,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R- Pa). The congressman said the House leadership spearheaded by Boehner needs to stop wasting time and instead focus on creating jobs for American workers.

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Democrats are bashing Boehner too: “If he were a woman, they’d be calling him the weakest speaker in history,” said his predecessor, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She explained that the House GOP majority led by Boehner “are not able to get anything done.”

Polls of likely voters also give the Speaker harsh reviews. In December, a Rasmussen summary of one of its own polls announced Boehner has become “the least liked major congressional leader, a title Pelosi has held for several years.”

Since Boehner became Speaker in 2011 he has had a rough ride.

After the August 2011 debt ceiling crisis, when the far right in the House insisted on going over the fiscal cliff, Pew polling found approval of Republican leaders in Congress at 22 percent — the lowest rating in the history of the poll. Fifty-five percent of American voters said their problem with Congress is not the political system but “the members of Congress.” A Fox poll released last week had approval of Congress at just 15 percent; the Economist poll had it at 11 percent.

The voters’ longstanding complaint, according to Pew, is that elected officials waste money, only care about politics and refuse to compromise. Those negatives have become hallmarks of Boehner’s term as Speaker.

And the pressure on Boehner continues to grow.

Democrats are pointing to the 14 Republicans who voted with them to pass the Senate immigration bill — giving the measure support from more than two-thirds of the Senate — as grounds for Boehner to turn away from right-wing politics. The Democrats see an opportunity for Boehner to frame the bill as a mainstream political effort.

But recent history shows the Senate passed a farm bill with Republican votes and the House did not follow suit.

“This tells us that leaders in the House majority have little capacity to lead, to persuade or bludgeon their members to do what they would otherwise be reluctant to do,” Norm Ornstein, the veteran Congressional observer wrote recently in National Journal.

Ornstein suggested the split between the far right and Speaker Boehner is now at the point of “emerging semi-anarchy,” endangering the immigration bill as well as spending bills and the extending the debt ceiling.

The best current example of “anarchy” under Boehner is his inability to gain the trust of his members and start negotiations on a final budget deal in conference with the Senate.

Senate Democrats passed a budget in March but House Republicans have refused to let their leader begin a conference to reconcile the House bill with the Senate’s.

Tea Party Republicans in the House apparently want to wait for a debt-ceiling crisis in the fall. That will be the moment of maximum pressure on the economy. This, they believe, will allow them to extract the most concessions from Democrats. The damage that would be done to the national economy and the further weakening of Boehner as a leader does not concern the Tea Party caucus.

“I don’t think a conference would be helpful at all because neither budget faces the reality of our dire economic condition,” said Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). He contends the country is headed for “economic collapse” despite the steady if slow economic recovery and strong stock market numbers.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another Tea Party Republican, is also discouraging a budget conference. The senator’s lack of faith in Speaker Boehner as a dealmaker was evident when Sen. Cruz declaimed: “Let me be clear. I don’t trust Republicans. And I don’t trust Democrats.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has described the House refusal to allow a budget conference as a “little bit bizarre.” And Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told reporters last week: “We should not be governing by crisis. We should be setting our goals as a country and moving forward.”

But how does the country move forward with a divided Republican majority in the House that does not trust its own leader?