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How Boehner's 'Critical Moment' Could Turn Out OK For Him

House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference at the Capitol on Friday. The night before, he did not have enough backing from his own party to pass his fiscal cliff legislation.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference at the Capitol on Friday. The night before, he did not have enough backing from his own party to pass his fiscal cliff legislation.

"The House has done its part to avert this entire fiscal cliff," House Speaker John Boehner said Saturday in his weekly address.

He cited the measure that passed Thursday, which would reorganize the automatic spending cuts to protect the defense budget and cut deeper elsewhere. He also pointed to legislation that would stop all tax hikes on Jan. 1.

Boehner said the president "refuses to challenge the members of his party to deal honestly with entitlement reform and the big issues facing our nation."

But he did not mention his proposed "Plan B," which would have raised taxes on annual income above $1 million. That measure never even made it to a vote Thursday. At the last minute, the speaker found he wouldn't have enough of his own party's support to pass it.

So is he now "bloodied" as a speaker, as The Associated Press put it Saturday? There are indications he may still make it out alive — and even better off.

Emerging From Wreckage

As we reported Friday, Thursday's slip was considered embarrassing for Boehner. NPR's Frank James notes in his post that "Plan B" was apparently supposed to give the speaker some negotiating leverage with the president and would have provided some cover if Obama and Congress couldn't reach a final deal.

"But it obviously was a miscalculation, since Boehner emerged with nothing except the appearance of further weakness," James says.

The failure to get support also evokes bad memories of the debt-ceiling negotiations in which Boehner was forced, James says, to "rely on Democrats for the votes needed to pass the legislation that created the fiscal cliff enforcement mechanism."

And yet, hope has not evaporated completely. (Boehner noted on Saturday that "hope springs eternal" that a deal would be reached, and President Obama said Friday he could be called a "hopeless optimist.")

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving tells NPR's Guy Raz on weekends on All Things Considered that there's even a chance that Boehner could come out of this "somewhat strengthened as a speaker:"

"I actually think there is a way for John Boehner to recover from all this and to come out of it, really, as something of a hero in the broad public sense, in the general American assessment of his speakership — and even then to keep his speakership when the new Congress convenes in January."

How? Elving says Boehner has to go back to negotiations with Obama. Then he has to get a deal that would pass with what Elving calls a "half-and-half," meaning half of the Democrats and half of the Republicans, plus one.

"So that at that point it's clear to the Senate they've got to vote for this or we're going over the cliff. That could probably clear the Senate — probably," he says. "And it could get done, theoretically, in time to be approved before the new tax and spending changes everybody's so afraid of really kick in [come] January."

Even if Boehner has to get help from Democrats to get a deal, he would be in a better position in the end, Elving says.

"That, I believe, would make enough Republicans feel better than they feel right now. Right now, the way they feel is that they've been embarrassed by some of their members, their speaker has been humiliated in public," he says. "This is not a long-term strategy for the Republican Party. I think most of the House Republicans would prefer another scenario than this, something with a little bit more of a future."

Where Loyalties Will Lie

When the new Congress comes in, it's possible Boehner will be out. But Elving doubts it. He says that in the end, enough Republicans will be willing to break from the most conservative among them to stick by Boehner.

Besides, says political analyst Norm Ornstein, Boehner is the speaker of the whole House.

"I think a lot of these people who spurned the party's leadership are still going to be loyal to Boehner. They don't have an alternative," Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.

As for negotiating a mutually agreed-upon deal for the long-term fiscal health of the nation, Ornstein never really expected that to happen. He expected, like Elving, it was always more likely it would come down to this:

"The speaker would reach a point where he would have to decide whether he would bring forward a deal that would require more Democrats than Republicans."

Not that that will be easy. It's a "critical moment" for Boehner, Ornstein says, and there are two big, outstanding questions: Will they try to do something before Jan. 1 or will it take a severe market reaction?

It may take the latter, he says. "But we're now at a point where [Boehner's] going to have a very, very un-Merry Christmas ahead."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.
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