Budget deal raises Boehner's stature — at least for now

McClatchy NewspapersApril 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — John Boehner emerged from the down-to-the-wire budget battle with a fresh reputation as a House speaker able to unify a feisty band of Republicans and emerge with one heck of a spending cut deal.

Congress next week plans to vote on the agreement to ax $38.5 billion in current spending over the next six months. President Barack Obama Saturday signed into law a stopgap measure that keeps the government running through Thursday.

Boehner was a key architect of the deals and was lauded for holding out for cuts larger than most expected.

“He’s done a superior job,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who in 2008 challenged Boehner for the GOP leadership post.

But stature in Washington can be fleeting. Boehner faces new tests next week, as lawmakers work out details of the last-minute Friday night agreement. And he’s being criticized in some quarters as too beholden to conservative tea party backers _ and by others for not going even further in cutting the budget.

Still, by most accounts, the Ohio Republican did well, holding out till the final hours for big spending cuts while avoiding the first government shutdown in 15 years.

Boehner’s new lofty standing is different from the expectations of just a few months ago. The GOP took control of the House of Representatives in January with a mandate to dramatically shrink the size of government, repeal the 2010 health care law and drastically slash spending.

Die-hard conservatives have rarely been big Boehner fans, despite his consistently conservative voting record. His affable personality didn’t suggest the kind of toughness they often wanted.

They remembered how, as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006, he won respect from Democrats and worked with the late GOP nemesis Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to push President George W. Bush’s education plans through Congress.

During last budget talks, Democrats attacked Boehner from a different direction, saying he was tethered to the tea party movement, which helped elect dozens of Republicans last year. Because the tea party helped defeat some incumbents for re-nomination, or push some mainstream Republicans out of races, Democrats said Boehner feared it

“House Republicans are all afraid of losing to a bunch of nuts in the primaries,’ said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Judson Phillips, founder and chief executive officer of Tea Party Nation, offered some evidence for that view, saying he’d like someone to challenge the speaker in a primary. In spite of Boehner's success in keeping Republicans united, more spending cuts are needed to trim the $1.65 trillion deficit expected this year, he said.

“You’re just rearranging the ice cubes on the Titanic,” Phillips said.

Today, the 241-member House Republican caucus is loosely divided into two camps. One includes many of the 87 freshmen elected in November, as well as veteran conservatives who form the Republican Study Committee.

They’re eager to repeal the 2010 health care overhaul, among other things, and the budget deal doesn’t do that. Boehner got a pledge that the Senate will take a vote on cutting off funds to implement the law, a vote sure to fail in the Democratic-dominated Senate.

Giving in on that issue this early in the congressional session, said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was a big mistake.

“I don’t see another place where we can get the leverage we had,” King said. “There were cards to be played.”

But there’s another group of House Republicans, generally veterans well schooled in the art of the deal. They’re close Boehner allies and have often acted as calming influences.

They include Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. Asked what he would say to tea party activists, he smiled and said, “Welcome.”

Boehner, according to most accounts, has been able to bring the party together with virtually no dissension.

He probably solidified his position in February, when the budget bill was subject to unlimited amendments. The process resulted in four days of deliberations, and a $61.5 billion spending package that cut funding for climate change provisions, Planned Parenthood and health care change.

Conservatives were pleased, but the next Boehner test was harder. The Democratic-run Senate rejected that budget bill, creating the impasse that ended with Friday night’s agreement.

Boehner kept the freshmen in line, meeting regularly with them, explaining the nuances of the legislative process.

“He’s been open with us, and accessible,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. “I think the speaker’s not beholden to anybody, except to the right thing to do.”

He boosted his appeal by holding out for bigger spending cuts. He came down to $40 billion, but in negotiations with Democrats and the White House, at first would not say what number he’d settle for.

Finally, he offered $39 billion, but insisted on no funding for Planned Parenthood, implementing the health care law and climate change policies. Friday, only the Planned Parenthood provision survived; Boehner said that was non-negotiable; Obama and the Democrats said their intention was to craft a budget plan, not debate social policy.

But Boehner wound up with nearly all the spending reductions he sought, as well barring the District of Columbia from spending its own funds on abortions for low-income women. When he met privately with House Republicans in a basement Capitol room around 10 p.m., he got several rounds of applause.

Virtually no one left the room willing to publicly criticize the deal. 208 Republicans voted for the plan, 28 voted against.

“Clearly this is the right thing to do for the country,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Boehner faces new tests in the days ahead. Congress still has to review details of the agreement and then vote. And sometime during the week, the House is expected to take up what could be an even more controversial budget plan: The GOP blueprint for slashing $6.2 trillion from spending over the next 10 years.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel Saturday offered this reminder: “Republicans are still the minority in Washington. We control one-half of one-third of the government.”

But a unified GOP has shown it can matter, and Republicans have a renewed air of confidence.

“The speaker,” said Lungren, “anticipates us well, and reads us well.”

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