The year began with a small group of conservatives contemplating the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner. Anti-Boehner members even pointed out that the speaker didn’t need to belong to the House. Outgoing congressman Allen West and former Comptroller General David Walker were among those receiving protest votes.
In the current climate, it almost seems as if these conservatives succeeded without succeeding. A non-member, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, arguably holds more sway in the House than Boehner.
Consider: Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had hoped to fund the entire federal government, including Obamacare, and then attach an Obamacare defunding amendment. Senate Democrats would then have voted the defund resolution down, making their most vulnerable members walk the plank, but with less risk of a government shutdown.
Leadership assured rank-and-file Republicans they would return to Obamacare funding during the debt-ceiling negotiations, possibly trading some easing of the sequestration cuts–which the Obama administration would actually like–for a one-year delay of the health care law.
Thanks in large part to Cruz’s intense lobbying, House Republicans rejected their leaders’ approach in favor of the Texas senator’s. The House passed a continuing resolution with Cruz’s binding the Obamacare defund language. The Senate predictably stripped it, setting in motion a stalemate that heightened the risk of a shutdown.
Cruz’s influence continued to be felt when the House Republicans passed a second continuing resolution, delaying Obamacare for one year and repealing its medical devices tax. The latter has bipartisan support–it passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in July by a vote of 79 to 20–but it seems unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow it to be used as a bargaining chip at this point.
All this comes on the heels of a Republican revolt over a proposed bombing campaign in Syria. Boehner and Cantor backed the Obama administration on military intervention. Before the vote was scuttled, it was clear that few GOP lawmakers were going along with them.
While the leadership delivered a majority of House Republicans against Rep. Justin Amash’s amendment to defund the NSA’s controversial data-mining practices, they needed Democratic support to prevail.
In almost every major standoff with the Obama administration–the previous government shutdown scare, the sequester, and the fiscal cliff–Boehner has struggled to corral rambunctious House conservatives.
Make no mistake: there are probably more House Republicans with Boehner than Cruz on shutting down the government, just as Mitch McConnell was able to get most Senate Republicans to defy Cruz on cloture.
But more Republicans worry about a primary challenge backed by Cruz, Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and a slew of Tea Party groups than fear Boehner. Hardline conservatives trust Cruz more than Boehner. And there is a critical mass of them willing to push each struggle to the 11th hour in order to achieve incremental results.
While these conservatives have yet to score a decisive victory, it can’t be said they have nothing to show for their efforts. They preserved more than 80 percent of the Bush tax cuts when they were about to expire in full. They won sequestration cuts that, while modest, have caused federal expenditures to fall for two years in a row after years of bipartisan spending increases.
Boehner is not without accomplishment himself. So far he has been able to give the Tea Party maximum room to maneuver, while preventing them from doing anything that actually endangers the Republican majority or produces particularly disastrous results for the country–at least until now. Not for nothing has New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dubbed Boehner a Houdini-like escape artist.
How many death-defying experiences can Boehner muster? Cruz actively undercut the speaker’s fiscal strategy of avoiding a continuing resolution fight in favor of debt-ceiling negotiations, going so far as to openly encourage House conservatives to spurn him. So far, they have listened often enough to get Boehner to frequently adjust his calls to Cruz’s playbook.
It is becoming more difficult for Boehner to pass legislation with Democratic votes while letting dozens of conservatives vote against him. And there is increasing political pressure to observe the Hastert Rule, an informal requirement that major legislation must have the support of a majority of Republicans before reaching the floor.
At the beginning of the year, anti-Boehner conservatives were within striking distance of enough votes to deny the speaker a first-ballot victory. But they never came close to a majority of the conference, let alone recruiting an alternative candidate.
Maybe Ted Cruz is up for the job.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?