Juan Williams: Boehner's sea of troubles

Juan Williams: Boehner's sea of troubles
© Greg Nash

The TV drama “House of Cards,” with all of its fictional backstabbing, looks lame compared to the current, real-life political drama on Capitol Hill starring Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader Scaramucci compares Trump to Jonestown cult leader: 'It's like a hostage crisis inside the White House' MORE (R-Ohio).

The Speaker has the biggest GOP caucus in Congress since the 1920s. Last fall, his strategy was to win enough Republican seats in the midterm elections to be able to ignore the bickering and bad-mouthing coming from disruptive, disloyal Republicans clustered on his far right.

The Speaker got his wish. But the strategy backfired. The increased number of Republicans has led the far-right wing of his caucus to splinter. Now a new, even more extreme conservative group, the Freedom Caucus, has organized. They find political reward in undermining, even embarrassing Boehner.


In Shakespearean terms, in less than three months of Republican House rule this year, the long knives are out and the Speaker has lost control. Will there be blood?

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote last week that the House GOP’s troubles make her wonder if they are “as much a pointed rebuke to Mr. Boehner over his leadership as anything else.”

“We really don’t have 218 votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side,” Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps The Hill's 12:30 Report: Muller testimony dominates Washington Lawmakers, press hit the courts for charity tennis event MORE (R-Pa.) told the New York Times last week in describing the lack of Republican unity. “So how are we going to get 218 votes on transportation, or trade, or whatever the issue?” 

In the same article, Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesRepublican Greg Murphy wins special election in NC's 3rd District Early voting extended in NC counties impacted by Dorian ahead of key House race The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina special election poses test for GOP ahead of 2020 MORE (R-N.C.) warned that the Speaker risks “more animosity” in the GOP House caucus if he relies on Democrats to pass legislation. 

The House calendar is about to force the Speaker to make just that dangerous choice.

Later this month, there will have to be a vote to fix payments to Medicare doctors; within the next few weeks there is a budget and that will be followed by the need to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. 

Then, around May, there will be the explosive debate and vote on raising the debt ceiling or shutting down the government. In June, the House will have to decide the future of the Export-Import Bank, a major target for the far right but also a major priority for Republican-leaning business leaders.

Meanwhile, outside conservative groups are also tearing at the Speaker.

Writing in The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, and David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, complained last week that a “lack of vision from House Republican leaders [has] led to stalemates and embarrassments… The narrative inside the Beltway is that Speaker John Boehner has tried everything to unify his conference. Yet his central focus for the last several months has been avoiding conflict day-to-day rather than offering constructive ideas and long-term vision.”

The Republicans plotting against the Speaker have financial outside help from conservative groups. When Boehner’s allies tried to rally grassroots support to back a clean vote to fund DHS – without requiring an end to the president’s executive action on immigration reform – the Senate Conservatives Fund raised money in defense of GOP dissenters.

And then there is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite. He continues to disrupt House politics to stir opposition to the Speaker. After Boehner allowed a clean funding bill for DHS to pass with Democratic votes, Cruz said House GOP leaders failed by selecting the budget for homeland security as a point of leverage against President Obama. “There was no chance – zero – that Republicans were going to fail to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” said Cruz.

But in December, Cruz had specifically advised far-right House Republicans to halt funding for “lawless and illegal amnesty… [It] occurs in the Department of Homeland Security, so we should attach a rider to the funding for DHS.”

The senator does not seem humbled by his failed advice. 

In another plotline, the men closest to the Speaker are failing him, too. Since January, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOn The Money: Senate panel scraps vote on key spending bill amid standoff | Democrats threaten to vote against defense bill over wall funding | Trump set to meet with aides about reducing capital gains taxes Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-La.) have left the Speaker to explain why the leadership team scheduled votes and then failed to round up enough members to pass GOP bills opposing abortion and education reforms as well as funding DHS.

And then there have been reports of infighting between McCarthy and Scalise. “Obviously, our members have a lot of differences on how maybe we want to go about tactics,” Scalise said on “Fox News Sunday” last week, before adding that Republicans are united in fighting President Obama. 

And don't forget the 25 Republicans who voted against returning Boehner to the top of House GOP leadership earlier this year.

At the White House, senior aides lament that the Speaker is “a good man in a bad situation.” They credit him with long ago wanting to make a “Grand Bargain” to bring down the federal deficit as well as make deals on the budget, tax reform, repairing the nation's infrastructure and immigration. 

But in every case, they say, Boehner tells Obama he has to politically survive as leader of a caucus that includes members who don't want any deal with this president.

Right now the better question is whether they want any deal backed by Boehner.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.