Boehner's Golden Opportunity

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation during a press conference on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation during a press conference on Capitol Hill September 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. After 25 years in Congress and five years as Speaker, Boehner said he decided this morning to step down after contemplation and prayer. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Although my own personal bias (as anyone can see, from a random sampling of my past columns) is pretty liberal, every so often I feel the responsibility to offer up honest suggestions for Republican politicians to help either themselves or their party. The only times I actually write such columns are when I'm almost certain my advice will be ignored, so I guess that right there also counts as bias. I offer this up as a preamble to today's column, which consists of some advice for John Boehner. In a nutshell, Boehner should use the freedom his caucus has just handed him (by not being able to agree on his successor) to end his legacy by being the savior of any chance Republicans might have in next year's election.

Boehner, to put this in slightly different (and more ungulate) terms, has already nominated himself as the Republican Party's sacrificial lamb. But on his way out, he could also be a very effective scapegoat, thus sparing both his party and the country at large a whole lot of needless drama and economic instability.

Boehner, by announcing his resignation (whenever it actually happens), has signaled that he's not running for office next year. This frees him from having to campaign and the necessity of pandering to the extreme right-wing elements in his own party. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose (as Janis taught us), which is exactly where Boehner finds himself right now. But if Paul Ryan doesn't somehow magically unite the House Republicans, they're probably going to find themselves stuck with Boehner for a little longer than they had thought. Boehner, after all, sets the schedule. His resignation was entirely voluntary, and has not actually happened yet. Boehner can resign (or not) on any day of his choosing. He also can choose when to hold the vote for the next speaker of the House. It's pretty easy to see that Boehner will not hold this vote until the Republican caucus demonstrates that one candidate (one who actually wants to run, that is) can get at least 218 votes. Boehner is not a fool, and will not step down if he's going to leave chaos behind -- he's going to wait until his party settles on someone to replace him.

But what if Paul Ryan declines to run and no other candidate quickly gains widespread support from House Republicans? In that case, John Boehner will not only still be in control of the House, but he'll have a free hand to do whatever he wants until the party chooses a successor. And there's a lot that needs doing in the next month or two.

In this scenario, Boehner can announce -- either publicly, or privately to his own caucus -- that he is no longer going to put up with the Tea Party's nihilism. "You want to vote against everything in sight?" Boehner could say to them. "Fine. Then I'll just toss the 'Hastert Rule' out the window, and start negotiating with Democrats before you guys even throw your tantrums."

The only thing stopping Boehner from doing precisely this over the last few years has been politics. Short-term politics, for the most part. But if Boehner is itching to ride off into the sunset, then he doesn't need to care about short-term politics any more. He can keep his eye on the long-term, historic view of politics instead. I realize that conservatives will already be sneering at this advice, but this really would be in the long-term interests of the Republican Party.

The Republicans have a problem. They really, really want to win the White House back, after being frozen out in the last two elections. But pretty much everything the Tea Partiers want to do is counterproductive to that goal. We're facing another government shutdown and another debt ceiling crisis. Other fiscal cliffs also exist, some in the very near future. The Tea Party wants these battles fought with maximum drama, which in the end might just lead to (at best) more short-term budgetary extensions -- which would mean we'd have this fight all over again, a few months down the road. Well, "a few months down the road" also equals "when the first primary elections happen." There's no good time to have such a fight, in fact, right up to next year's Election Day.

Sane Republicans (and I do include John Boehner in that group) know that the best possible solution to the upcoming crises would be to somehow kick the can down the road -- far down the road. The ideal outcome would be both a budget agreement and a debt ceiling hike that took us past Election Day 2016. Boot that can all the way to December of next year -- or perhaps even February or March of 2017, to drop the whole problem into the lap of the next Congress.

No matter what minor tweaks do or do not get attached to such a bill, punting until after the next election is truly the goal -- and not just of sane Republicans, but also of Democrats (nobody really wants a gigantic budget battle, one month before the country votes).

John Boehner is now in a position where he could make this happen. He could start with a quiet meeting with Nancy Pelosi. Boehner could tell Pelosi that he had 150 Republicans (or 180, or whatever the actual number) who had agreed to vote down all the Tea Party craziness -- as long as enough of Pelosi's Democrats voted with them to produce an evenhanded omnibus bill that could actually pass the Senate. If Pelosi agreed to the general outlines of this deal, then Boehner could return to his caucus and explain how the new "Boehner Rule" was going to work: Boehner would schedule a full week of votes before the deadline, and during that time Tea Partiers would be free to bring bills to the House floor for a vote, on whatever craziness they were currently demanding. But -- crucially -- none of these would be allowed as amendments to the main budget bill, which would be voted on after the show-vote frenzy was all over. By doing so, Boehner would be free to sit down with not only Pelosi but Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and work out a deal acceptable to all (or "to enough on both sides to actually pass," at the very least).

This would work well for everyone except John Boehner, when you think about it. Boehner's stature among his own party would likely tank even further. He'd be a hated man in some quarters, without doubt. The word "traitor" would likely be heard on Fox News. In reality, however, Boehner would be accommodating everyone while avoiding the fiasco of a shutdown or a default. The Tea Partiers could pass bills to their hearts' content. Other House Republicans would be free to vote for any or all of them, to avoid the prospect of "getting primaried" by a Tea Partier in the future. All of these bills would move to the Senate, where they would promptly die (or be filibustered to death, take your choice). The Tea Partiers would get a solid week's worth of news, where they could make their case to the public as best as they know how.

But when all of that shouting was over, the adults would take over and a compromise budget bill would get a vote -- without all the crazy amendments. Republicans and Democrats would pass it in the spirit of bipartisanship. The Senate would follow suit, Obama would get a moderate bill on his desk -- before the deadline had passed -- without all the "poison pill" reasons to veto it. America would go forward without self-imposed fiscal cliffs, which would benefit the economy.

If Boehner and his supporters banded together in such a fashion, they would also prove to the country at large that they were indeed capable of governing. This would (obviously) benefit the Republican Party in the elections -- much more so than trying to explain why their government shutdown was really all Obama's fault. Boehner could wrap all of this up by Christmas, in fact, if all the Congressional leaders now began working out a compromise bill that covered everything. After all, if the House Republicans can't agree on anyone to lead them by Halloween, then it's really doubtful they'll get their act together before Christmas rolls around. Assuming Paul Ryan takes a pass on the job, the House Republicans could be stuck with Boehner for months. If that's the case, Boehner should use his remaining time productively.

Sure, he'd be excoriated by the right-wing media. He'd pay a hefty political price -- but likely only in the short term. Ironically, if Boehner took this route, it would be a huge goad to the Tea Partiers to figure out a way of supporting someone to replace Boehner, so it'd even be to their own advantage, eventually. But if the next speaker is weaker than Boehner then Republicans soon might look back on Boehner's leadership a little more fondly. And whichever presidential candidate emerges from the Republican nomination scrum will also be indebted to Boehner, if he managed to punt the budget fights beyond Election Day 2016. All of this -- avoiding shutdown fights, getting the House to agree on a replacement, and pushing the next budget fight past the election -- would actually help the Republican brand in the long run. Boehner, at this point, really has nothing left to lose. It could even be a golden opportunity for him to be remembered as "the last speaker to get something done" for a long time to come. I personally urge him to take this opportunity... although, as I started by saying, I'm pretty sure he won't take my advice.


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