Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

John Boehner, U.S. Speaker of the House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
John Boehner, U.S. Speaker of the House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

GOP freshmen turn Boehner's dream job into a nightmare Add to ...

The 87 freshmen Republican congressmen who took their seats in the House of Representatives in January were supposed to ensure John Boehner's place in American history books.

They still could. Just not in the way the Speaker might have hoped.

Mr. Boehner is struggling like few recent Speakers before him to reconcile his own deal-making Republicanism with the no-compromise determination of his Class of 2010. His own leadership may be at stake.

More related to this story

The freshmen, elected in the November Tea Party wave that gave Republicans control of the House and Mr. Boehner the speakership, have frustrated his attempts to pass a bill to raise the $14.3-trillion (U.S.) ceiling on the amount the federal government can borrow. Congress must lift the limit by Aug. 2 if the U.S. Treasury is to avoid defaulting on its debt.

On Wednesday, Moody's put the top-notch U.S. credit rating under review for a possible downgrade "given the rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis, leading to a default."

If that happens, look to the GOP freshmen as the cause.

Mr. Boehner mused this week that negotiating a debt deal acceptable to President Barack Obama, the Republican House majority and a Senate that is nearly evenly split between the parties is like solving a Rubik's cube. But that is only partly true. At least every side moves on a Rubik's cube.

"John Boehner is an old-style Republican. He's conservative, but he doesn't breathe fire," said Randall Ripley, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. "He was not prepared for just how far to the right these freshmen are, or for the extreme inflexibility of these people."

Some House GOP freshmen have indicated they will not vote to increase the debt ceiling - period. Others have made their vote conditional on trillions of dollars in spending cuts over the next decade - and no tax increases.

When news leaked that Mr. Boehner was negotiating a $4-trillion deficit-reduction proposal with the White House that included $1-trillion in new tax revenues, the freshmen balked and the Speaker recanted. It put Mr. Boehner in the awkward position of being publicly at odds with his caucus.

"The freshmen know why they were sent [to Washington]and they know full well they were not sent there to raise taxes," former Colorado GOP congressman Bob Beauprez explained in an interview. "They were sent there to cut spending and restrain the growth of government."

Mr. Boehner needs to muster 218 votes to get any debt-ceiling bill through the House. It appears unlikely he can find that many among his own 240-member caucus. But rallying enough Democrats to a debt-ceiling bill that includes cuts to social programs will not be any easier.

"None of the plans being discussed right now could garner the 218 votes needed," Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, warned on Wednesday.

Indeed, long-simmering talk of dissension between Mr. Boehner, 61, and Mr. Cantor, 48, has grown louder in recent days. Politico, the beltway newspaper, mused that Mr. Obama sought to add to the tension by suggesting that Mr. Boehner had not briefed his second-in-command on debt-ceiling talks the President and Speaker held in late June.

Yet, Mr. Boehner's attempts to engineer a deal with the President may be in the freshmen's electoral interest. Dozens of them are to the right of the districts they represent, a function of the fact that hard-core conservatives turned out in larger numbers than normal in last fall's midterm elections.

In 2012, a presidential election year, turnout is expected to be much higher and represent a broader cross-section of voters. To hold onto their seats, many first-term members will need to appeal to independent voters.

Few freshmen seem to agree or care. They are toeing the Tea Party line that allowed them to win their Republican primaries, sometimes at the expense of incumbents, and carried them to victory last November.

As such, they are making the speakership Mr. Boehner long coveted a poisoned chalice of sorts. Even Mr. Obama has expressed his sympathy.

"The politics that swept him into the speakership were good for a midterm election," Mr. Obama said Monday. "They're tough for governing."

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular