From the beginning, it was one of the worst kept secrets in Washington: House Speaker John Boehner and many senior Republicans thought any effort this year to end financing of the new health care law could not succeed.
They pointed out that there was no chance that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his Republican tea party allies could coerce Democrats to scrap the law in return for keeping the federal government open. They feared that like 1995, voters would blame congressional Republicans for closing the national parks and furloughing federal workers.
“Ted Cruz worked everyone up saying if we hold firm we can de-fund the law, and that’s just a foolish strategy,’’ said Columbus area Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Boehner confidant. “The plan was doomed to fail because we don’t control the Senate and we don’t control the White House.’’
In the end, as Boehner, former White House political adviser Karl Rove and a host of other Republicans feared, the GOP yielded to re-open the government and raise the government’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, while getting very little in return.
Boehner, who Tiberi said repeatedly told his colleagues that he was “not going to let the default be put in our lap,’’ placed the bill on the floor and allowed it to pass with Democratic and Republican votes.
The strategy championed by Cruz, the tea party and the conservative Heritage Action for America organization crumbled in a staggering defeat for congressional Republicans as their job-approval ratings plunged to record lows in a spate of national polls.
Yet by siding with House conservatives to push their strategy to de-fund the health law, Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., may have helped himself among otherwise rebellious House conservatives even as he has been pounded by newspaper columnists and Democrats as a weak leader unable to control his truculent colleagues.
Some GOP officials are hopeful that Boehner, viewed in the past with suspicion by many conservatives, gained enough trust from GOP conservatives that they may be willing to follow his advice during the next budget crisis.
“I don’t think his speakership is in imminent danger,’’ said Nathan Gonzales, a congressional analyst with the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “I don’t think this is the final battle or final time he will have to try to bring the caucus together … I don’t think his actions during this fight caused a coup (among conservatives) or incited a coup.’’
Addressing Boehner’s standing as speaker, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, a staunch conservative, said “the speaker has handled himself well and no one is talking about anything.’’
A Republican strategist in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Boehner managed the crisis “quite well. He drew a bad hand and if he had his choice, he and his leadership team would have wanted to play the hand differently. What people will find out is they underestimate John’s ability to navigate these treacherous waters.’’
It’s unclear how much damage was inflicted nationally to the Republican brand as a result of the shutdown and debt fight. The Senate Republican candidate allied with the tea party was trounced Wednesday in the New Jersey Senate race, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, another tea party favorite, appears headed toward a resounding loss next month in Virginia.
To make the public relations fiasco even worse, Americans were riveted the past two weeks on the partial shutdown plan instead of focusing on the haphazard rollout of Obama’s health plan.
“I can’t imagine John Boehner’s life has been very much fun these last few weeks,’’ said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “Ultimately he had to make a decision … whether he wants to be speaker of the far right-wing of the Republican Party or whether he wants to be speaker of the United States House of Representatives. I think he finally came to the conclusion that it’s his duty to his country to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.’’
Amidst the rubble, however, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., enter next year with a much stronger bargaining hand as the temporary spending bill keeping the government opens expires on Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling will need to be raised again on Feb. 7.
The second year of automatic spending cuts — known as a sequester — kicks off on Jan. 15, requiring the federal government to cut $109.3 billion in spending for the year, including $54.6 billion from the Pentagon budget. Boehner and McConnell will no doubt use the sequester as leverage to force Democrats to agree to spending restraints on the massive entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who will be a member of a conference committee of the House and Senate trying by Dec. 14 to forge a long-term budget agreement, told Ohio reporters Thursday the “Democrats will try and break’’ the spending caps imposed by the sequester. But he asserted the possibility of new spending cuts “does give us who want to hold the caps some leverage.’’
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote in the House and Senate, the tea party and its allies pounded House Republicans who voted to re-open the government. In e-mails to conservatives across the country, Americans for Limited Government charged that “when it counted,’’ Tiberi and Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, were “nowhere to be found in the fight to de-fund Obamacare.’’
With the exception of Boehner, southwest Ohio Republicans, including Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, voted against reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling.
The tea party will continue to influence votes in Congress, Gonzales said, but currently lacks the clout to dictate results.
“I don’t think the tea party’s going away,” he said. “It’s just a matter of they have to either increase their numbers or change their strategy and I think they’ll try to increase their numbers. But it’s going to take multiple election cycles.”