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Speaker Boehner’s legislative dilemma

- September 22, 2011

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.