Political Animal


January 13, 2012 11:25 AM Boehner’s once bitten, twice shy

By Steve Benen

My prediction about the failure of a year-long payroll tax-cut deal isn’t looking so good. On the contrary, it’s looking increasingly likely that an agreement should come together well ahead of the deadline.

The problem, as I saw it, was that House Republicans bit the bullet in December after badly miscalculating. They accepted a two-month deal, but they would, I argued, make excessive demands in the next round, dooming any possible extension. Since GOP members tend to oppose the tax-cut policy anyway, they wouldn’t have much of an incentive to be cooperative.

To be sure, far-right members will continue to push an extremist wish list, but unlike last time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is reportedly “prepared to navigate around rebellious Tea Party-aligned lawmakers to get a deal.”

“I think Boehner will seek a more accommodating approach to get a good percentage of Democrats to vote for it — even if it costs him a lot of House Republican freshmen,” one House Republican leadership aide told Reuters.

“His instincts will be not to be so reliant on House Republican freshmen,” the aide added, referring to the 85 first-term congressmen.

From the perspective of House GOP leaders, Boehner took orders from the right-wing contingency in December, and the result was a fiasco in which Republicans were pushing for a middle-class tax increase a few days before Christmas. The Speaker could pursue a replay, but he seems to realize there’s not much of an upside for his party. Why suffer through the same easily-avoided debacle twice?

The deadline for an extension is Feb. 29, but Boehner is apparently so eager to get this over with, the Reuters report indicated he’d like to wrap up a deal over the next two weeks — so President Obama can’t use it against Republicans in the State of the Union address.

This is not to say Republicans will go along with a surtax on millionaires and billionaires as part of a compromise — that wouldn’t have the votes to pass either chamber, no matter how popular the idea is with the American mainstream — but just about any other funding mechanism would likely get the Speaker’s approval.

Nothing is ever easy in this Congress, and there will be plenty of opportunities for failure, but the odds of eventual success appear to be improving.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


  • c u n d gulag on January 13, 2012 11:30 AM:

    I'm still going to wait for The Teahad to take place, where the real nuts like West and Gohmert go apesh*t!!!

  • Danp on January 13, 2012 11:31 AM:

    When Republicans recognize disaster, they turn to Frank Luntz. Don't expect progress on policy.

  • theAmericanist on January 13, 2012 11:35 AM:

    Always do the math: there are 242 Republicans in the House. It takes 218 votes to pass anything. There are 193 Democrats.

    So it takes as little as 25 Republicans to pass something.

    Boehner was elected Speaker by only Republican votes, but as Speaker he is not a partisan official -- he serves the WHOLE House. Allowing the House majority -- both Republicans and Democrats -- to work its will is his job.

    There are 155 House Republicans who are not Tea Party freshmen. So you can get ZERO Tea Party freshmen votes, and still pass something with as few as 63 Democratic votes. That is, something can be 155-63 favorable to Republicans, and pass.

    Yet that would be reported as a massive defeat for Boehner -- not because he didn't have a large majority (155-87) of his caucus, but because he didn't get the unanimous support from his freshmen.

    Make it so.

  • Josef K on January 13, 2012 11:39 AM:

    A well reasoned counting, theAmericanist(at 11:35am). Leave us hope the Republican freshmen don't become better versed in the procedures used either chamber, lest they find obscure chokepoint to exploit.

  • schtick on January 13, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Anyone that believes Bonehead is going to work with the dimwits dems have forgotten the squeaky wheel called Can'torwon't that will change the direction of the bus.

    crapcha....ndixels inherently....indeed

  • T2 on January 13, 2012 12:29 PM:

    its not a matter of votes, Americanist, its a matter of getting re-elected. Boner bows to the TeaBaggers because he's afraid of being primaried, and losing his cush job. Once he decides that keeping his job is more dependent on the non-TeaBag GOPers and a Dems, he'll start acting properly. The only question is when that tipping point will occur. I'm thinking it may just have. Once the November elections are done and we either have more or less GOPers in Congress, and either Obama or a Crazy Person in the WH, things are bound to change again.

  • theAmericanist on January 13, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Nothing obscure about it -- there are pretty much only two things that a bloc of 87 votes can do in the House from within the majority.

    First, they can vote down a Rule. Unless you suspend the Rules to pass something (which is generally done for routine things, like naming post offices, or for deals that have been wired on both sides), everything that gets floor time in the House has a Rule. Rules establish what will and won't be voted on in a particular piece of legislation, e.g., if the House wants to vote on repealing health care reform, will they vote on single payer? That's what the Rule for the bill does.

    So a Rule is THE tool for the majority to control what goes on in the House. If there is substantial bipartisan support for change legislation coming out of a Committee, so much that it would defeat the bill unless it's changed, the majority makes sure that the only amendment that gets voted on is the one offered by a member of the majority. That's just how it works.

    Since Rs have 242 votes, they cannot lose more than 25 before they don't have a majority to pass a rule. (When Democrats were in the majority, it was the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- a quarter the size of the Tea Party freshmen -- who held this power of the Democratic majority.) No majority wants to need the minority's votes just to run the place.

    Second, the Tea Party freshmen can challenge the majority's leadership directly from within the Caucus. They represent a movement within each Republican district, although obviously some more than others. But a very large percentage of the Republican majority is vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right. So even though the 87 Tea Party freshmen are a (substantial) minority of the 242 Republicans in the House, the 155 who are not freshmen include at least 60 who are likely to vote with the freshmen, to protect themselves on the right.

    It would be different if the Tea Party freshmen were not exclusively Republicans, or had some sort of third party status within the House, the way (for example) religious parties in Israel have influence way out of whack with their actual representation: parliamentary systems tend to exaggerate the power of small parties because they can form (or break) governing coalitions.

    The American system tends to give sub-sets of the Congress (both the House and Senate, in different ways) the power to stop stuff, but not the power to make anything happen.

    The Founders did that on purpose, after all.

  • Werewolf on January 13, 2012 12:50 PM:

    Boner's big problem is that if he ticks off the Teabaggers, he'll be ex-Speaker of the House pretty quickly. They're a small minority of the House, but a big chunk of the Republican caucus.

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on January 13, 2012 1:05 PM:

    >> My prediction about the failure of a year-long payroll tax-cut deal isnít looking so good. On the contrary, itís looking increasingly likely that an agreement should come together well ahead of the deadline.

    Wait. Did you just admit that one of your predictions might not come through? How will you ever be seen as a Very Serious Person if you let things like facts get in the way of your opinions?

    (Snark aside, it's that sort of willingness to self-correct that is missing from the mainstream media and why bloggers are ascendant and dead-tree journalism is in trouble.)

  • T-Rex on January 13, 2012 1:55 PM:

    Why do I suspect that the GOP establishment may not exactly go to the wall to get some of these tea party freshmen re-elected? Humiliating their Speaker repeatedly, and giving the public obvious reasons blame their party for the economic situation, really aren't smart career moves

  • bob h on January 13, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Nominee Romney has got to be wary of the House Republicans, who presumably will find it difficult to contain their fanaticism and further damage the Party and Romney by association.

  • Chromehawk on January 13, 2012 3:52 PM:


    Rightly said "Boehner was elected Speaker by only Republican votes, but as Speaker he is not a partisan official -- he serves the WHOLE House. Allowing the House majority -- both Republicans and Democrats -- to work its will is his job."

    I did a search ... hmmm. Interesting. No posts by him that PELOSI was the Speaker of the WHOLE House. I guess she could slam the door in Republican faces.

  • theAmericanist on January 13, 2012 7:37 PM:

    That's because Pelosi's time as Speaker was very different. Consider two examples --

    The first is the ordinary operation of the House, which is majority rule. That is, when the majority is in charge of itself, when there is a consensus among the majority party and dissenters go along because politics is a team sport, there is very little the minority can do: they get outvoted. That's how the House is SUPPOSED to work. You don't like it, find another country.

    The useful parallel is health care reform.

    I pointed out that writing the Rule for any given piece of legislation is how the majority runs the House of Representatives, which has been true since before the Civil War, and in its modern form hasn't really been changed since 1889. To be the majority party takes only 218 votes. (At least, since 1912. Before that, in a smaller House, it took fewer votes.) In 2009 there were 257 Democrats in the House, so they easily voted a Rule for health care reform that prevented any Republican amendments -- and yet 34 Democrats joined all 178 Republicans in voting against it. It passed with one vote to spare: 219-212. That's how self-government is SUPPOSED to work -- as you say, Speaker Pelosi did her job, making certain that the majority of the House got to work its will.

    Put it this way -- it is possible that a different majority of the House might have passed a different version of health care reform by a larger margin: but the point of majority rule is that it only takes 50% plus one. If the public doesn't like it, they can vote a different majority -- as in fact they did.

    Another example from the Democratic majority, which was NOT majority rule: I pointed out that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- just a quarter the size of the Tea Party freshmen -- could vote down a Rule, when the Democrats were the majority. That's because enough of the 255 House Democrats would have voted with 22 or so Hispanic Caucus members to keep the majority from having the 218 votes necessary to pass a Rule.

    They had a peculiar and counterproductive strategy -- if you assume for a second that all the Hispanic Caucus members would have voted as a bloc (which is a big assumption), and that none of the other Ds would have gone with them, that leaves you 235 Ds to support a Rule -- 17 more than enough.

    But the Hispanic Caucus and a whole lot of Ds (supported by some of the worst legislative tacticians in recorded history) insisted that the only way pass certain kinds of legislation was in big complex bills that had to have "at least" a certain # of Republican votes: it varied, depending on who you talked to, or when, and about what, but generally the idea was that if you had a couple dozen Rs, then you could have a Rule that would allow some window-dressing vote on an amendment, and then whatever the big bill was, would pass -- if only by the one-vote margin that health care reform got.

    Except it was always a loser strategy -- IF you did the math. If you start with, say, 190 Democratic votes for a particular kind of big, complex bill, and THEN you tried to get your majority NOT from within the 255 Democrats in the last Congress, but by picking up 24 Republicans BEFORE you got the last 5 or 10 Democrats that you needed to win, you had the following dynamic: with 190 D's committed to vote 'yes', maybe 20 Rs would conditionally pledge to vote 'yes', IF -- which wasn't enough.

    So you'd work the phones and do the whip count, and maybe nudge the Ds up to 200 -- and you'd lose 10 of your Rs. Still not enough.

    Then you'd pull out all the stops, beg and plead and promise the moon, and you'd get the Ds up as high as 210, or even 215, with literally dozens of Ds ready to jump on the bandwagon, just as soon as you got the margin of victory from the Rs -- and you'd discover that now you had NO support from the minority party, at all.

    In the last Congress, you simply could not pass legislation that required any support from the minority to get a majority in the House, yet in only a few cases (like health care reform) did you find that Pelosi was willing to push a vote that got its majority of the whole House exclusively from WITHIN the Democratic majority.

    So, no: the short answer is that you are flat out wrong: Pelosi could not "slam the door in Republican faces", even when she had a 37 vote margin. She could lose 34 Democratic votes on health care, and still pass a bill, because that's what majority rule means.

    But she could not reliably deliver her Democratic majority, much less push Republicans around. Do the math.

  • manapp99 on January 14, 2012 11:34 AM:

    The extension will get done and there will be no big battle over the debt ceiling increase. This is an election year in which the incumbent president is using the congress as his shield against the public. The president is running against them instead of running against the GOP nominee. Members of congress on both sides are seeing their own jobs in peril. Dems are not going to be willing to fall on their swords in order to get Obama re-elected and are facing the likely hood of losing control of the Senate as well as not being able to take back the house. Congress is going to be desperate to improve their own numbers and do not want to held out by the president as being ineffectual. Therefore they will not go to war over either the extension or the debt ceiling increase. They will, however, unite against the presidents request for fast track authority in reorganizing the executive branch. The Dems want to protect government workers, do not want to give up the power for the minority to filibuster (they will need this if they lose control of the Senate, remember) and neither side wants to give control of various committees over to the white house regardless of the party affiliation of the president. As was pointed out on NPR, the president is not serious about the request or he would have reached out to members of congress before presenting it. This is a campaign stunt designed to show the president as the only one in DC who is on the side of John Q. Again...running against congress.

  • theAmericanist on January 14, 2012 7:18 PM:

    You're delusional, mana.

    1) It has been Republicans, not Democrats, who have staged dangerous and pointless fights over the government paying its bills, e.g., the debt ceiling. More than any other event, this dragged down the public's view of Congress as an institution. That hurts the Republican majority in the House far more than it hurts Democrats anywhere on any ticket.

    2) It was Republicans, not Democrats, who caved on extending a tax cut for working stiffs. As you point out, they're going to do it again. This will hurt Republicans. It will not hurt Democrats.

    3) Running against a do-nothing, obstructionist Congress works very well for an incumbent President who had a solid record of legislative achievement (like health care) , despite the leading Senate Republican stating as a fact that the GOP's top priority was Obama's failure as President, until Republicans took over the House. Since then, Republican achievements in Congress have exclusively been a series of stunts, undercutting their own leadership and attacking the President for basic responsibilities of self-government (like paying the bills).

    4) Democratic incumbents in the House will find this a solid foundation for re-election. After all, all the Democrats who are still in the House survived 2010, they're not likely to lose with a recovering economy and Obama at the head of the ticket.

    5) By proposing to consolidate several Federal agencies, Obama has set an agenda -- the great power of the Presidency, the bully pulpit. Boehner has absolutely no cards to play in response -- he can only obstruct or try to change the subject: to what?

    6) Democratic challengers to Tea Party freshmen will have several solid advantages -- for one thing, by definition they are all running in marginal districts which have flipped parties, often more than once in recent years. For another, they are all running against incumbents who have not exactly covered themselves in legislative glory.

    7) The Senate has a different dynamic -- there are more Ds than Rs up this cycle, and Democratic incumbents who might have held on to several marginal seats (e.g., Nebraska) have decided to step aside.

    But the distinct possibility that the economic will ever-so-slowly continue to improve, even as the Rs face the extreme unpopularity of THEIR control of the House because of stunts like undercutting Boehner on the debt ceiling, makes it entirely possible that the conventional wisdom for a year now has been flat-out wrong: 2012 could be a Democratic rout of Republicans.

    The Ds could run the table in November.