Can Boehner Count Votes?

Speaker of the House John Boehner seems not to be able to count votes very well. Or, to be more charitable, perhaps he's just working through his opening day jitters. But it certainly seems that he is indeed making a few rookie vote-counting mistakes as he learns his new job.

Consider his handling of a bill to renew three provisions of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, more commonly known as "the Patriot Act." Three parts of this law are going to expire if Congress doesn't renew them by February 28. A bill to do just that was introduced in the House, under "fast track" rules which are normally used for bills which aren't all that contentious. The reason why contentious bills aren't usually fast-tracked is that they require a two-thirds majority vote to pass -- a mighty high bar indeed. Boehner, apparently assuming he had the votes, brought the Patriot Act renewal up under the fast-track rules -- which then failed to gain the required majority by seven votes. The Washington Post called this an "embarassing setback" for House Republicans.

The truly embarassing part of the vote count was that over two dozen Tea Party Republicans (or, perhaps even "Libertarian Republicans") voted with most Democrats not to extend the provisions. This is a rather large defection for Boehner to swallow. The libertarian strain of the Tea Party Republicans may lead to similar surprising splits within the House Republican ranks in future votes, which is certainly an interesting turn of events. Perhaps House Democrats should raise a few issues where the Left agrees with Libertarianism, just to sow dissent in the GOP ranks in the coming months? It's certainly worth considering.

The passage of the Patriot Act extension isn't really that much in doubt, though, at least in the House. Boehner is now doing what he should have done in the first place -- introducing the bill under different rules which only require a majority vote. Since the measure "failed" by a vote of 277-148 in favor, it doesn't seem likely that getting a bare majority is going to be a problem (although the deadline might be, since the Senate has slightly different ideas on the renewal). But the point is that Boehner didn't realize this fact before scheduling the previous vote -- a tactical error on his part.

And it's not the only such error Boehner appears to be making, of late. From the Washington Post article:

Earlier Tuesday, House Republicans pulled a bill to extend assistance to workers who lose jobs due to competition from imports. Conservatives had complained that the bill would put the federal government too squarely into the private economy.

And from a different Post article online:

And on Wednesday, a measure to take back $180 million in funds the U.S. has already given to the United Nations also fell short of a two-thirds super-majority.

The bill, which had been fast-tracked, failed on a 259-to-169 vote. It had been sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) but was opposed by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who was one of two Republicans to vote against it Wednesday.

Democrats charged that the failed votes indicate that the GOP is in "disarray."

"I don't know why the leadership would call votes on issues that they don't have any idea of what the outcome's likely to be," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), one of the most outspoken opponents of the Patriot Act. "This is twice in a row. I'm not really sure what the strategy is. ... It's not working for them."

Kucinich is being polite. By "them" he really means "Speaker Boehner." Because it appears the Speaker has not learned to accurately count noses in his own caucus yet. To be fair, this is really the job of the majority whip, who is supposed to "whip the votes" into shape before the Speaker moves a bill forward. But while Kevin McCarthy (the current majority whip) deserves some blame for these unforced errors, the buck really stops in Boehner's office. The Speaker has ultimate power over which bills to move forward (and under which rules), and Boehner apparently moved without an accurate whip count.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't likely to be all that big a deal, I should mention. Much more likely is that these are merely, as I said, rookie mistakes. The upshot will probably be that Boehner has to slow down a bit on passing his agenda items, until he is sure of the level of support of any individual bill. Both the U.N. dues bill and the Patriot Act extension will likely pass with comfortable margins once they are reintroduced "on the slow track" (which only requires simple majority votes). The Tea Party Republican defection is certainly an interesting development, but it's hard to imagine them banding with Democrats to actually pass bills (although they may band with Democrats to defeat bills). Picture a Tea Party Republican/Democratic bill which had majority support in the House from such an odd coalition (hey, it could happen) -- this bill would likely never come to a vote, because Boehner has absolute control over what moves and what doesn't in the House. Which is why any such coalition may work together to defeat bills, but would likely not be able to pass any new ideas of their own.

Perhaps John Boehner's just having a rough week. He'll likely get better at counting votes as time goes on. Perhaps we're all so used to Nancy Pelosi running the House that we're setting the bar too high (Pelosi almost never moved any issue until she was absolutely certain she had the votes to prevail). But perhaps... just perhaps... we're seeing the external cracks from the power struggle for control of the Republican Party starting to develop.

House Republicans, so far, have been trying to ramrod through a whole host of social "hot button" issues that they've been wanting to move on for a long time -- but this is not exactly politically smart, considering that they haven't done a single thing yet on the jobs front. Democrats are starting to point this out, too. But the real fight within the Republican Party has only just begun -- what to do about the budget. This is going to pit the deficit hawks in the party against the party regulars who know what (just as one example) slashing federal farm subsidies would do to them at the ballot box. There are going to be multiple budget battles among House Republicans in the next few months (finishing up this year's budget, passing next year's budget, and raising the debt ceiling), so this is going to be a rather long and drawn-out affair.

This is where the real test for Boehner lies. He's going to have to be the one who decides which budget bill moves forward. And if he's going to avoid a very public brouhaha within his own party, he's going to have to get a lot better at counting votes than he has been in the past few days.


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