The GOP’s grand navigator

House Speaker John Boehner has to satisfy his right flank—while still making deals with the White House

The GOP’s grand navigator

Alex Brandon/AP

John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich. And, so far, that’s working.

Shortly after the perpetually tanned Ohio Republican took over as Speaker of the now GOP-controlled House of Representatives in January, he faced a trial by fire in the form of negotiations over federal spending. Republicans elected with the backing of the Tea Party movement were demanding $100 billion (all figures in U.S. dollars) in spending cuts—out of a total expenditure of $3.7 trillion—this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. They were prepared to shut down the government if they didn’t get them. On the other hand, he faced President Barack Obama, whose party still controlled the Senate and who could benefit politically if Republicans forced a shutdown, just as the 1995 shutdown paved the way for Bill Clinton’s re-election the following year.

Boehner found a middle way—he extracted cuts from Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, while avoiding a total revolt on his right flank, and kept the government open. In the process, he laid the groundwork for negotiations over the 2012 budget and long-term fiscal reforms that Congress will begin to tackle next month. Many Republicans were relieved that Boehner did not lead them over the shutdown cliff. “One of the worries I had was that public opinion could have swung wildly if a government shutdown had occurred,” said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. Instead, Republicans emerged from the negotiations in control of the Washington debate, which not long ago had centred on how much to spend to stimulate the economy. “We’re talking not only about whether we are going to cut, but how much we are going to cut government spending,” said Madden.

Not all Republicans were happy about it. Shortly after the deal was sealed, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office produced an analysis that said it would cut hardly any spending from this year’s budget—less than one per cent of the promised $38 billion would be saved before Sept. 30—because most of the savings would come from spending authorized for future years. The freshmen Republicans were furious. Activists attacked Boehner and threatened to run a challenger against him in 2012. Among his critics were potential presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and Sarah Palin. “That is not courage, that is capitulation,” Palin said.

When the deal came to a vote, Boehner could not get enough GOP votes to pass it—but he was able to draw votes from centrist Democrats, even though Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, voted against it. Boehner showed the Tea Party faction in his party that he could do business without them. “They feel he might have pulled one on them and they didn’t get the deal they wanted. But they just saw he could be quite effective,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton. “If they had been able to subvert the deal, they would not be scared of him now.”

Indeed, according to a survey of Washington lawmakers by the National Journal, a politics and policy magazine, a plurality of Democratic, and a vast majority of Republican, members of Congress said Boehner gained more from the deal than the president. Not bad for a guy from Ohio who grew up sharing a two-bedroom house with 11 siblings and, as he likes to mention, mopping floors in the family tavern.

A former businessman and long-time member of Congress, Boehner worked with Newt Gingrich on the Contract With America, the conservative manifesto that helped Republicans take the House in 1994. (Gingrich subsequently became Speaker and his hardball tactics led to a budget confrontation with Clinton and a government shutdown). But Boehner’s leadership style is proving to be the antithesis of Gingrich’s, says Zelizer. “He’s not like Gingrich at all—a guy who thrived on ideas, intellectual debate about conservatism, and thrived on the media. Gingrich loved to be front and centre all the time. Boehner is much more traditional. He avoids the spotlight, and is a backroom deal-maker.”

“As political personalities, Boehner and Gingrich couldn’t be more different,” says congressional analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Boehner is understated and not given to hyperbole. Gingrich is bombastic and inclined to take offence easily. I wouldn’t call Boehner wildly popular, but he’s much less likely to become a polarizing lightning rod, as Gingrich was throughout the 1990s.”

Boehner’s challenge going into the recent spending debate was that many of the 87 newly elected GOP congressmen had campaigned on promises of $100 billion in cuts this year. Reports that Boehner’s negotiating position was initially $32 billion in cuts infuriated his caucus. He upped it to $61 billion, eventually coming to terms on an agreement that was said to contain spending reductions of $38.5 billion. “One way of looking at it is that Boehner secured two-thirds of his $61-billion goal while controlling only one-third of the federal government,” notes Sabato. During the negotiations, he kept a close read on his own caucus. “His style is one of listening and consensus-building,” said Madden. But he avoided tipping his own hand. “He keeps his opponents in his own party and Democrats off guard,” added Zelizer.

In the process, he sounded more like a pragmatist than an ideologue. “It’s never been lost on me that because we only control the House there are a lot of other players that we need to work with in order to come to any agreement to keep the government open,” Boehner said on March 16. Says Zelizer: “He didn’t want a dramatic last stand or high-profile confrontation with Obama. He wanted to cut a deal that was generally favourable to Republicans.”

Boehner will need all the clout he can muster when lawmakers return from recess on May 2. The main item on the agenda will be negotiations over raising the legal limit on how much money the U.S. government is authorized to borrow—something many Tea Party Republicans pledged they would not do. “Boehner got through the challenge, but he’s not home safe,” says Sabato. The government is expected to reach the current debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion by mid-May, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the federal government could risk defaulting on its debt obligations or stop issuing Social Security cheques unless Congress authorizes the borrowing of more money.

Boehner has said he is in favour of raising the debt ceiling, but that the move would have to be accompanied by additional spending cuts. Again, he’ll face a resistant right flank within his own caucus, and a White House that would prefer the debt ceiling be raised with no strings attached. And after that, there is the little matter of the 2012 budget—and tackling America’s long-term deficit spending.

As he faces these tasks, Boehner may find kinship with another contemporary politician who prefers deal-making to ideological grandstanding, and whose biggest challenge is keeping the support of his own party while searching for common ground with the other side. His name is Barack Obama. “These are two guys who, in the end, the last hour of negotiation, are both men whose inclination is to say, ‘let’s make a deal’—not, ‘let’s create a tense situation,’ ” adds Zelizer. “They are well matched in that way.”

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