Friday Talking Points -- New Job Vacancy: Chief GOP Cat-Herder

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)

Every so often, when preparing to write these weekly wrap-up columns, I wake up Friday morning and a political bombshell has happened which pretty much wipes out all the political news from the entire rest of the week. Obviously, today was one of those days, as we all learned this morning that Speaker of the House John Boehner will be a private citizen again by Hallowe'en. He'll step down not only from his speakership, but also from his House seat itself, more than a year before the end of his current term. So it looks like the Republicans are going to need a new cat-herder to (attempt to) lead them in the House.

The impact of this news is stunning, all along the political spectrum. The far-right folks are overjoyed, as they've never liked or trusted Boehner much at all. The not-quite-as-far-righties (we simply can't call them "moderates" anymore) are a bit anxious and confused. Democrats are experiencing a burst of smirking schadenfreude (which is entirely to be expected, really, but so far they've been doing it fairly quietly and in private). Late-night comedians are -- quite sadly -- filing away all the "Boehner/boner" jokes they've relied upon for the past few years (especially that one priceless clip where Boehner himself makes the joke to a reporter).

Kidding aside, though, Boehner certainly picked an interesting time to step down. Before his announcement, we were facing the possibility of a government shutdown as early as next week. However, the Senate doesn't seem to be backing the "shut it down" caucus on this particular fracas (over defunding Planned Parenthood). A budget bill which would have done precisely that just failed in a cloture vote with the rather surprising margin of 47 to 52. In other words, the Republicans needed 60 votes. They only got 47. That's not even a majority, folks. This shows the deep division within the Republican Party over such "my way or the highway" tactics. But if the Senate is moving more towards "Hey, let's not shut the government down, because we're not going to win this battle," the House is obviously moving in the opposite direction. Boehner traded his speakership for one last vote to keep the government open. By doing so, he will be able to say he made good on his promise not to shut the government down again, while simultaneously leaving a ticking time bomb for his successor -- and one with a very short fuse.

Even the Tea Partiers will go along with the vote for a short-term "continuing resolution" which does fund Planned Parenthood, because they won't have to stage a vote of confidence to get rid of Boehner. That was the deal that was struck, which means no government shutdown will happen next week. But it might also mean a government shutdown in early December -- since the continuing resolution under discussion will only extend the budget until then. The next speaker is going to have to hit the ground running, that much is for sure. The Tea Partiers have agreed to postpone the big fight for a few months. But they certainly aren't agreeing to be any more reasonable than they ever have been, when we get to that new deadline.

The math, of course, won't change. The Senate Republicans still won't have a filibuster-proof majority (far from it), much less a veto-proof majority. In order to avoid a shutdown, some deal must be struck between the new speaker and the Democrats in the Senate. That dynamic won't change no matter who takes Boehner's place. The question is whether Boehner's replacement will strike such a deal, or whether we're heading for another shutdown. Unless the federal government shuts down permanently, at some point a deal must be reached -- the big questions are when that deal will happen (before, at, or long after the new deadline), and how much intransigence the new speaker will have to deal with before it happens.

The man Boehner has obviously chosen for his replacement is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California. When McCarthy moved into his current leadership position in the House Republican caucus he was seen as someone who could hopefully bridge the gap between the Establishment Republican and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party. That assumption will be almost immediately put to the test, assuming McCarthy is successful in his bid to become the next speaker (he might not be the shoo-in some pundits are proclaiming him to be... we'll see).

John Boehner always seemed (to us, at least) to be someone who had dreamed of leading the House for years, and truly did want the House he led to operate in a traditional fashion. This would have meant allowing for a certain amount of ultra-partisan shenanigans on the floor every once in a while, but when the crunch time came, it also would have meant striking deals with the opposition party to secure the votes necessary in the House and Senate to put legislation on the desk of the president. Boehner, at times, seemed even more frustrated with his obstructionist members than the Democrats were. This plainly wasn't the way he wanted his speakership to go, but he proved powerless -- over and over again -- in avoiding the "take no prisoners" attitude of his own caucus. Then when Boehner did strike the necessary deals, he was immediately labeled a traitor by his own members. The mystery isn't why he's stepping down now, really, it's how Boehner put up with his ungovernable caucus for so long.

Boehner was fighting an impossible battle with his own party -- and not just the Tea Partiers in the House but also with the rank-and-file voters, most of whom simply don't understand the realities of congressional math. Republican voters wonder: "We hold both houses of Congress, so why can't Republicans force President Obama to bend to their will?" This has bred such resentment towards the Establishment Republicans that the current top three GOP presidential candidates have, between them, absolutely zero experience in any elected office, anywhere.

That's a tough climate for House leadership. But it is the hard cold reality. The House can vote 50 times, or 100 times, or 500 times to repeal Obamacare, but they don't have the power to end it. They just don't. To actually get anything done means a long, boring process that (currently) requires some degree of compromise with Democrats. That is the reality, but many Republican voters absolutely refuse to accept it. Donald Trump and many other Republican presidential candidates have been gleefully tapping into this free-floating anger within the GOP base.

This is one reason why Democrats -- at least up until this writing (this political bombshell is pretty fresh, admittedly) -- are not exactly joyfully celebrating Boehner's exit. There is instead a certain amount of apprehension across the aisle. Boehner had his faults (plenty of them) but who knows if the next speaker will be worse? This might not even be a matter of personality, but rather the entire tail-wagging-the-dog nature of the stranglehold the House Tea Partiers have over their caucus.

There are three basic strategies the next speaker could use. The first would be to follow Boehner's example of giving the Tea Partiers full voice, but also to make the necessary deals in the end. But that's precisely what earned Boehner so much ire, so that's a risky strategy for a new leader to follow, to say the least.

The second path would be to give the Tea Partiers full control over the caucus -- to just surrender fully to the extremists. The Tea Partiers would love this, of course, but the entire rest of the country would become increasingly horrified by it. Especially if government shutdowns start to be measured in months, not weeks.

The third strategy is the least likely, but would represent the best outcome for the country politically. The new speaker could be a much stronger leader than Boehner, and choose to largely ignore the Tea Party faction. This would return Congress to an earlier style of deal-making. Republicans would offer a list of agenda items, and Democrats would do likewise. The new speaker and Mitch McConnell would lay out their priorities, and demand 90 percent of them be in the budget agreement. Democrats would talk them down to maybe 75 percent, and also get something like 25 percent of their own priorities into the bill. People on both sides of the aisle would hold their nose and vote for the compromise. The Republican Party would advance their agenda enormously -- much farther than they have under Boehner, it's worth pointing out -- but the most extreme parts of their agenda would be blocked by Democrats. Democrats would get a say in the legislation much earlier on in the process (instead of after the shutdown starts), and they would also be able to get some baby-step agenda items passed. That's the way the process is really supposed to work, even if it hasn't since the rise of the Tea Party.

However, at this point this last option seems pretty farfetched. It would require a very strong new Republican speaker -- one who wasn't afraid to keep his own party in line. The split between the Establishment Republicans and the Tea Party would grow a lot wider, if you can even imagine that. In order to pull off this feat of leadership, the new speaker would have to essentially jettison the (non-existent) "Hastert Rule." Instead of just relying on support from his or her own party, the new speaker would have to woo Democrats to pass reasonable bills from the start (and not as an afterthought). Which, again, seems pretty farfetched right now, but it could happen (anything's possible, right?).

One last thing worth mentioning before we get on with the rest of the column is that John Boehner is currently second in the line of presidential succession. If Barack Obama and Joe Biden suddenly died, Boehner would immediately be sworn in as president (at least, until October 30, when he's said he'll be stepping down). So Boehner's replacement is important, in a constitutional sense.

Speaker of the House John Boehner reportedly walked into his press conference after his bombshell announcement singing: "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay / My, oh my, what a wonderful day!" After the battles he's had to fight during his speakership -- most of them within his own party -- it's pretty easy to see why today would be seen as a "wonderful day" by John Boehner. Whether him stepping down turns out to be wonderful for the House Republicans, the Tea Party, the Democrats, or the country at large still remains to be seen. Things could get better, but then again they could also get a whole lot worse. Changing who is the head cat-herder probably won't change the nature of the cats to be herded, to put this another way.

 

We're not going to hand out a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week, because one man was so impressive during the week that he absolutely eclipsed everyone else. I speak of Pope Francis I, who gave the first papal address to the United States Congress this week, among his other stops on his first American visit.

In the world of political punditry, the Pope's words were immediately claimed by both sides of our partisan divide. Fine distinctions (akin to angels dancing on a pin, perhaps?) were drawn between "conservative" and "progressive" positions the Pope took. But this is pretty crass, when you get right down to it.

The Pope -- this Pope, at least -- shouldn't be measured on a "left/right" spectrum. He's more about "up/down" instead (if I might rotate the metaphor 90 degrees). He's concerned with a different agenda than most politicians. Which means it's really a fool's errand to try to pigeonhole him by limiting the scale to mere politics.

Francis is remarkable, because he is attempting to change an institution even more moribund than our own government. The Catholic Church has roughly eight times the history the United States of America has, to put it another way. So far, for all the "new tone" the Pope is setting, he hasn't actually changed any Catholic doctrine at all. He speaks much more compassionately and openly, but nothing about the Church's position has actually changed -- on the role of women, on contraception, on gay marriage, on priests getting married, or any of the rest of it.

He may be "softening the ground" for such changes, though. It's impossible to tell at this point, but he has put into motion a two-year process which may actually modernize some Catholic doctrine. We're only halfway through this process, so nobody knows what -- if any -- major changes Francis will make. It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say to the world families conference he'll be attending in Philadelphia, to see if any hint of future shifts will emerge.

But agree with Francis or not, agree with the Catholic Church or not, you've got to admit Francis was pretty impressive this week. He came to the United States after he visited Cuba, doing a sort of "victory lap" after being so instrumental in bringing the two countries to speaking terms again. Like his namesake, Francis seems to take very seriously the concept of humility. That alone, along with even making the attempt at reforming a 2000-year-old bureaucracy, is so impressive that we can't even focus on crass politics this week. And no, we're not going to create a special award for the Pope instead of handing out the MIDOTW award. We say with all seriousness and with no attempt at humor whatsoever: We are not worthy of creating such an award.

 

Likewise, in the spirit of forgiveness, we are not going to issue a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week, either.

Pax vobiscum.

 

Volume 363 (9/25/15)

Papal visit aside, there was some other political news this week. Scott Walker shockingly dropped out of the Republican presidential nomination race. Hillary Clinton finally came out against the Keystone XL pipeline. But we're going to ignore all of that, because like our introduction this week, our talking points all deal with John Boehner's stunning announcement.

We did briefly consider creating a talking point out of the fact that Scott Walker said God had called him to run for president and the fact that John Boehner made his decision the day after he met with the Pope (Boehner: "This morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today's the day I'm going to do this"). This talking point would have been titled something like "God calling on Republicans to quit," but we decided that'd be too snarky to include in the same column that praised Pope Francis, so we righteously decided to leave it out. What would that be, expressed in Latin? De mortuis nil snarkum, maybe? Well, Latin's never been our strong suit, we fully admit. Heh.

Instead, this week our talking points are mostly informative ones. They're really tailored to talk across the aisle, to any Republicans who might now be doing celebratory dances at the prospect of John Boehner stepping down. Because, as they all point out one way or another, the Congressional math isn't going to change at all.

 

   McCarthy will have the same problem

The leader's name will change, but the structural problem will not.

"There's a familiar saying about 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,' but the problem the Republicans now find themselves facing might instead be called 'changing cruise directors on the Titanic.' No matter who is in charge of the Lido Deck, unless you change course that ship's still going to hit that iceberg, folks. The Tea Partiers are still there, and now they've got a fresh scalp nailed to their wall, so I can't see them suddenly becoming more reasonable. I feel somewhat sorry for Boehner, because he genuinely seemed to want to get things done at times, which is largely the reason he's being forced out now. So any new speaker -- Kevin McCarthy or anyone else -- is going to have the same exact problem. The House can pass Tea Party bills until it is blue in the face (or maybe red in the face?), but when it comes to actually passing bills to put on Obama's desk, I think the next speaker will have just as large a problem as Boehner has been having, no matter who gets the job of herding the Republican cats in the House."

 

   It's the math, stupid

This is the big disconnect that people like Donald Trump exploit with glee.

"The big problem the Republican Party has right now is that their base voters simply don't understand the math of basic American civics. When you don't hold the presidency, it takes a whopping two-thirds of both houses of Congress to impose your absolute will in legislation. The Republicans currently hold both the House and the Senate, but their majority is nowhere near two-thirds in either house. They do not have the votes to overturn a veto -- they don't even have the votes to defeat a filibuster in the Senate. Those are hard, cold facts that Republican base voters are mostly unaware of. Republicans cheering Boehner's exit seem to think changing speakers will change this situation in some way. It will not. The math is the math. Changing speakers doesn't change it one iota, no matter what the Tea Partiers think."

 

   The House passing poison pills is meaningless

Yet another thing some rank-and-file voters need to be educated about.

"For all the complaints from the Tea Partiers, John Boehner actually let them do pretty much whatever they wanted. The anger at Boehner was really that he had no magic wand to make a House-passed bill the law of the land. The House has voted over 50 times to repeal Obamacare, and yet the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act remains completely unscathed. The House can pass all the bills it wants; defunding Planned Parenthood, making abortions illegal for rape victims, abolishing the I.R.S., slashing Social Security... whatever. But extreme bills that no Democrat can vote for will still get filibustered in the Senate, no matter who leads the House. The only thing the House can achieve on its own is to shut down the government, over and over again. That's it. They can gum up the works, but with the numbers they have, they are incapable of setting national policy on their own. Again -- no matter who sits in the big chair."

 

   The same as no bill at all

This one is truly puzzling, but Republicans seem to be shaky on the concept.

"All of the fights in Congress over these poison-pill bills that demand 100 percent of what the Republicans want and nothing Democrats want are kind of ridiculous. Let's just say for the sake of argument that somehow one of these House bills was agreed to by the Senate. It would then go to the president's desk, where it would be vetoed. This is seen as some sort of victory by the Republicans -- just listen to them talk about the budget and 'reconciliation,' for instance -- but what they're ignoring is that a vetoed bill is exactly the same thing, functionally, as no bill at all. Even if John Boehner did have a magic wand to get House bills through the Senate, they would still not become law and we'd all be back at square one. The only difference is the perceived political hay the Republicans could make over the issue on the campaign trail, but nothing else would change in the slightest."

 

   The "C-word"

There's only one way to get bills signed into law.

"John Boehner did a pretty good job of letting the Tea Partiers stamp their feet and have their tantrums, but at the end of the day (or, sometimes, a few weeks after the end of the day), Boehner would forge some sort of compromise legislation with Democrats because he knew it was the only way to get both the Senate votes necessary and the president's signature. None of that will change with a new speaker, except maybe the timeline of the Tea Party tantrum period (which might get shorter or longer, depending on the new speaker's leadership style). But the math is the math -- to get anything at all done in Congress, some degree of compromise is absolutely required right now. I know the 'C-word' is considered obscene (or maybe blasphemous) by the Tea Party, but compromise is the only way anything at all is going to get done until the next election. What worries me is that the compromises Boehner struck are precisely the reason he was eventually forced to resign. This doesn't exactly bode well for the next speaker."

 

   Not the same as governing

The game is not reality. Sometimes it's worth pointing that out.

"If all goes as planned, Boehner's resignation will buy a vote to keep the federal government running until mid-December. This means that the new speaker will have a little over a month to solve the budget impasse. That's a pretty tall order for someone new to the job, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, Boehner's resignation is only going to empower the obstructionists. Say the Tea Partiers pass their dream budget in the House, and get it through with reconciliation in the Senate. Then what? Obama vetoes it and the government shuts down -- right before the holidays. The radical Republicans seem to think that 'Boy, we sure showed Obama!' is the same thing as getting something done. It isn't. Forcing a veto is not the same thing as governing. In fact, it is nothing more than scoring a cheap point in a political game that most Americans are downright disgusted with in the first place. But this game isn't reality. Reality is no budget, no bill, and no compromise. We'll see how long that lasts, as everyone's busy getting ready for the holiday season."

 

   Social Security checks will stop

This is the hardest and coldest reality, and this is also what always ends these silly shutdowns.

"With Boehner stepping down, we will gain a few months before a government shutdown looms. But when we get to that point again, will the Tea Partiers demand no compromise and no surrender? Boehner is loathed for (among other things) eventually bowing to reality the last time the House Republicans shut down the government. Will a new speaker refuse to take this route, and just leave the government shut down, in an effort to force Obama's hand? Well, folks, while Republicans love to make light of 'So the National Parks are closed, big deal!' and belittle the impact of shutting down the federal government, there is always another deadline built in. At some point, the Social Security Administration will find it has no fiscal authority to send out checks. If the Republicans truly take the route urged upon them by Tea Partiers, then we will reach that point and all Social Security checks will stop. I wonder how popular that'll be with Republican congressional constituents. My guess is: 'not very' -- what do you think?"

 

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