Op-Ed

Speaker Boehner’s Legislative Dilemma

Sarah A. Binder

How useful is that big gavel if you can’t win a vote? Last night’s
failed House vote to pass a stopgap spending bill reminds us again of
the difficulties Speaker Boehner faces in trying to corral votes from
the right flank of his Republican conference. All but a handful of
Democrats voted against the bill, leaving the Republican leadership on
the losing end of a 195-230 vote to fund the government through late
November. In the end, forty-eight Republicans voted against the
leadership, despite the Speaker’s efforts to
cajole his colleagues to vote with the rest of their party. If no
compromise is reached that can pass both chambers by October 1st, the
government shuts down.

A few thoughts on Boehner’s legislative predicament.

First, as Voteview nicely graphed this morning, the dividing line within the GOP
conference is likely to a large degree ideological: Those voting
against the bill were on average more conservative than those voting for
it.

Second, keep in mind that more than legislators’ policy views likely
determined whether or not they voted for or against the bill. Seeing
that the bill was going down, some Republicans likely jumped off the
sinking ship—presumably to demonstrate their conservative bona fides back home. Win by a little, lose by a lot, as King and Zeckhauser
once called it. In other words, the core of Republican conservatives
willing to buck the leadership at any cost might be far smaller than the
four dozen who voted against last night’s CR.

Third, and related, I think it’s helpful to identify the hard-right flank of the GOP
conference (or those whose votes make them appear to occupy the hard
right—whether for pure ideological reasons or for strategic electoral
concerns back in their districts). If we identify Republicans who
voted against the April budget deal, the August deficit deal, and last
night’s CR, the total sums to 25, roughly half of last night’s GOP defectors. Those two dozen Republicans are Boehner’s worst nightmare (maybe even literally) because the GOP
conference totals 242 members. Assuming 217 for a chamber majority (1
vacancy and Rep. Giffords not voting), Boehner’s recalcitrant right
flank leaves the GOP leadership with
precisely… zero votes to spare if Democrats vote lock step against the
Republican position. The obvious political solution is to nudge the
bill to the left to pick up Democratic votes, in this case perhaps
reducing or eliminating the offsets required to pay for the disaster aid
included in the bill. Of course, Boehner’s been in this position
before late in the game of reaching a deal on the deficit, and he chose
to move the bill to the right (thereby making it less
acceptable to the Senate). That move may have bolstered the Speaker’s
bargaining leverage, given how close it was to the August 2nd deadline
for breaching the debt ceiling. This time, Boehner has some days to
spare, so perhaps he moves right once again. So long as the Democrats
prefer a bill to a government shut down, Boehner’s floor defeat last
night might (ironically) bolster his party’s leverage for concessions in
the end game.

Fourth, lest anyone’s keeping score, the difficulties of governing a
majority are catching up with Boehner in more than one way. When
building a majority from within GOP ranks
looks difficult, the House Rules Committee proves willing to adopt
restrictive floor rules to keep both Democrats and Republicans from
unraveling the bill. And not surprisingly, when the CR failed last
night, the House Rules Committee immediately met to pass a rule that
allows the leadership to bring a rule straight to the floor anytime
before September 30th, waiving the GOP’s 3-day layover rule and its commitment to a more open and bipartisan House. Transparency is important, except when it’s not.

Related Books