Rep. John Boehner won a second term as speaker of the House of Representatives in the first order of business for the 113th Congress, which convened Thursday.
While the Ohio Republican ran unopposed to keep his job, his reelection was not without a churn of rumor and controversy. Conservatives in his party, unhappy with his negotiations with President Obama over the “fiscal cliff” and other issues, sought to muster just 17 GOP dissenters to force a second ballot and perhaps his withdrawal from contention for the speakership.
But, in the end, these efforts came to naught, and Mr. Boehner won on a voice vote, 220 to 192.
Addressing the 113th Congress after his reelection, Boehner embraced the traditional party line on fiscal issues. “Our government has built up too much debt,” he said. “Our economy is not producing enough jobs. These are not separate problems.”
Still, there was enough deep-rooted dissent in House GOP ranks in recent days to make threats of a challenge plausible now or in the future. But beyond threats to demand a secret ballot for Thursday's speaker vote, no one stepped forward to publicly challenge Boehner's second term.
Grumblings about Boehner’s leadership had been building for more than a year.
Boehner’s first election to be speaker in 2011 had the feel of a victory lap: Republicans had just reclaimed control of the House with 63 new GOP members after a landslide midterm election.
But the difficulties of fulfilling promises to voters to cut deficits and roll back government took a toll on party unity. Battling charges that they were extremist and obstructionist, House Republicans lost six seats in November 2012 elections but kept their majority, 235 to 199.
Still, public approval ratings of Boehner fell to 29 percent, compared with 54 percent for President Obama, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Over time, internal GOP dissent increased, especially as Boehner began private negotiations with Mr. Obama over issues ranging from raising the debt limit in the summer of 2011 to, most recently, averting the “fiscal cliff,” some $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that were set to take hold Jan 1, 2013.
House Republicans approved of the stand Boehner took early in the 2011 debt-limit talks: that for every dollar of increase in the national debt limit, Congress must find $1 in spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
But, as word spread about what other concessions Boehner was prepared to make in the closed talks, such as putting “revenue” on the table (a term that could mean tax hikes), Republican opposition mounted. Many conservatives felt Boehner was giving too much away and had not won adequate assurances from the president that promised spending cuts would, in fact, take place.
With the prospect of a first-ever default on the national debt looming, 66 House GOP conservatives refused to vote with Boehner and a mainly unified GOP leadership for the debt-limit deal. The measure passed 269-161, with the support of 95 Democrats. But the last-minute debacle damaged the reputation of House Republicans and contributed to decision of credit rating agencies to downgrade the US credit rating.
The debt-ceiling agreement also committed Congress and the White House to identifying an additional $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years or face automatic spending cuts, or “sequester,” on Jan. 1, 2013. Again, Boehner negotiated privately with Obama to work out a deal to avert tax hikes and spending cuts that economists said would plunge the nation back into recession.
Two weeks ago, at least 50 GOP conservatives scuttled Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would have extended Bush-era tax cuts to most taxpayers but allowed taxes to rise on income over $1 million. Boehner’s inability to rally his own caucus behind the plan, an alternative to Obama's plan to cap extending Bush tax cuts at $250,000, ended Boehner's role in the negotiations, which flipped to the Senate. In the end, the House voted on a compromise debt deal worked out between Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Vice President Biden.
The vote this week on the Senate deal threw House Republicans into even more disarray. Most committee chairs, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, voted with Boehner to support the Senate bill. But 151 Republicans – more than 60 percent of the caucus – including majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and majority whip Kevin McCarthy of California opposed the Senate bill, which called for the first hike in federal income tax rates in 20 years
Then, to cap an unusually bad week for House GOP unity, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Northeast congressional lawmakers publicly blasted Boehner’s decision late Tuesday night to cancel a vote on $60 billion in relief aid to victims of hurricane Sandy, a move that required the issue to be restarted in the new Congress.
“There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner,” Governor Christie said in a news conference in Newark, N. J., on Wednesday.
Rep. Peter King (R) of New York called Boehner’s refusal to take up the disaster relief package a “disgrace.”
Facing an untimely revolt a day before elections for speaker, Boehner and House Republican leaders on Wednesday reversed course and scheduled a vote Friday on a first installment of $9.7 billion for disaster funding. Another vote to deliver more aid will take place by Jan. 15, GOP leaders say.
Ron Meyer, a spokesman for American Majority Action, a conservative group that worked to oust Boehner, said before Thursday's vote that there were as many as 20 GOP lawmakers ready to vote “nay,” forcing a second ballot and, possibly, a Boehner resignation.
“His approval rating is the worst of any politician in Washington,” he added. “There is a legitimate movement to get him out."
Boehner famously survived being kicked out of House GOP leadership after being implicated in a coup to topple Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998. He worked his way back through, in part, his committee work as chair of the panel that worked out President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law.
As speaker, Boehner pledged to restore the House as a body where members can legislate through committee work, not just vote along partisan lines on bills drafted by party leadership.
Critics have said Boehner has failed to control his caucus. But supporters say his style has been to allow views in the caucus to be fully expressed and allow the caucus to work as a deliberative body, even if it means exposing rifts in Republican ranks.
“He lets the House work its will and takes the defeat,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, the deputy whip. “That's why we are where we are today. That also means you’ve got an exceptionally strong speaker.”