Washington watch: Did Boehner find his backbone?

Tea Party Patriots called Boehner another “tax-and-spend liberal” who has “declared war on the Tea Party” with his “smug and pretentious rant.”

Boehner 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boehner 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to take his leadership out of the blind trust where it has been sequestered for nearly three years could improve Republican appeal to Jewish voters in the next election if the move proves to be a game changer and not a one-off fluke.
The top dog made clear last week that he will no longer be wagged by the irksome tail of his party’s Tea Party extremists.
Boehner’s switch came with the passage of a budget bill intended to prevent a repeat of October’s government shutdown that sent the Republican brand plunging into the subbasement.
The bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, was the work of the two budget chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). On becoming speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) had declared “I reject the word” compromise, an attitude that fostered nearly three years of gridlock and the reputation as leader of the least productive and most scorned Congress in modern history.
Actually it wasn’t his leadership that led to this sorry state; it was his abdication of leadership to the Tea Partiers and the ideological extremists who came in the 2010 House GOP takeover. He was clearly intimidated by the angry and energized newbies, and not always confident of the loyalties of his top deputies.
Ultimately he let them – with much pushing from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and ultra-conservative outside groups – force the shutdown. Whether it was an act of cowardice on the part of a Speaker who let them trample over him or he just let them get away with it to prove their way wouldn’t work, Boehner looked feckless.
It is far too early to tell whether last Friday’s vote was the beginning of a trend or a fluke because the House quickly adjourned until mid-January for another of its extended unearned paid vacations without dealing with the farm bill, extending unemployment compensation, immigration reform and other needed legislation.
But not before Boehner found his voice and excoriated the extremists who were calling for defeat of the Ryan-Murray compromise even before they knew what was in it.
He seemed to take pleasure in venting at them, accusing them of “misleading” people, lacking “credibility” and “pushing our members in places they don’t want to be.”
He was talking about well-funded hardright groups like Heritage Action, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity, Senate Conservative Fund and the Club for Growth as well as right-wing bloviators like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
Tea Party Patriots called Boehner another “tax-and-spend liberal” who has “declared war on the Tea Party” with his “smug and pretentious rant.”
That’s the worst curse in their repertoire: liberal.
Interestingly, after years of the House acting like the kids and the Senate the adults who would clean up after them, the roles may be reversing. That could be because seven Republican senators, including the top two leaders, are facing well-financed primary challenges from the farther right next year despite their own solid conservative bona fides.
Whatever recovery House Republicans may be seeking, their Senate brethren, led by the scared seven, could easily undo with their blocking tactics – part driven by the habit of trying to filibuster to death anything this White House wants and resentment over “nuclear” change in Senate rules by Democrats.
But there could be enough votes on some occasions among more moderate Republicans to vote with the Democrats to block another of minority leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) frequent filibusters.
This budget deal will become law, but another showdown could be only two months away when the debt ceiling will have to be raised. If Republicans block it in either chamber there could be another shutdown, which is something Boehner wants to avoid; the White House announced this week the increase is nonnegotiable. The Speaker knows what damage the last closure did and he’d prefer avoiding a repeat so Republicans can end their own civil war and instead focus voter attention on the bungled rollout of Obamacare.
But it will take more than that to convince Jewish voters to cross over.
If in coming elections, Republicans want to attract more Jewish voters (they do well enough on the money, witness Sheldon Adelson’s largesse), they can’t do it on Israel’s back alone. Actually, much of that appeal on Israel is aimed not at the Jews but at evangelical voters, a backbone of the GOP that shares little else in common with Jewish voters.
It’s not enough to tell Jewish voters that “we love Israel more than the Democrats do,” because most voters see little difference between the two parties, despite differences on policies like peace with the Palestinians and negotiations with Iran.
What keeps Jews voting Democratic by margins of 3:1 and greater is a range of domestic issues coupled with the growing isolationism of the far right.
If they want a bigger share of the Jewish vote, Republicans are going to have to reach out on issues like immigration, the environment, protecting Social Security and Medicare, welfare, tax reform, gay rights, gun safety, education and the role of government – a tall order despite Boehner’s apparent shift to more pragmatic politics. Unlike Tea Party supporters and many on the far right, Jews historically are not anti-government. They have instead looked to government not as the enemy but to protect religious freedom, civil liberties and provide a social safety net.
Ryan’s answer to conservative critics of the budget compromise, who opposed any concessions to the Democrats, was voters are “expecting us to find common ground.”
A single example of bipartisan compromise coupled with excoriating the extremists does not transform the do-nothing Congress into a do-something Congress, but there will be opportunities in the second session of the 113rd Congress, which convenes next month.
Boehner has generated some great expectations.
Can he deliver? What about his Republican brethren in the Senate? Only time will tell whether Boehner is offering hope or change.