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It's not easy being Boehner

Being John Boehner has not been an easy thing to be lately.

The House Speaker, a West Chester Republican who has served in Congress for 22 years now, has had nothing but headaches for the past month.

He was, in effect, pretty much cut out of the fiscal cliff negotiations, mainly because no one – not President Obama, not House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, not Senate majority leader Harry Reid, or even the Senate minority leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell - believed he could deliver a majority of his own Republican caucus for a fiscal cliff plan that would raise taxes on the wealthy and do nothing to rein in spending.

In the end, it was McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden who worked out the deal, which passed by a 257-167 vote.

And the fact was, he couldn’t deliver a majority of the Republican caucus – 151 of 242 Republican House members voted no on the fiscal cliff bill – including his southwest Ohio colleagues, Rep. Steve Chabot and Rep. Jean Schmidt, in her final vote as a member of the House.

Before Christmas, Boehner couldn’t even bring his “Plan B” bill for averting the cliff – one that kept the Bush era tax cuts for everyone except those making over $1 million a year – to a floor vote, because he knew he didn’t have enough Republican votes to pass it.

No wonder he ended up cussing out Harry Reid at the White House.

There was a lot of speculation over the past week that Boehner, who took over as speaker from Pelosi in January 2011, after the GOP re-gained control of the House, couldn’t muster enough votes in Thursday’s election for speaker to keep the job.

In the end, though, he did, although 12 Republicans ended up voting for someone else. One of them was the new representative from Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District, Thomas Massie, who cast the one and only ballot for Rep. Justin Amash, the libertarian congressman from Michigan who was stripped of his committee assignments by House leadership.

Then, after getting blasted by New York and New Jersey Republicans, for delaying a vote on $9.7 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy relief, the vote was taken Friday and passed the House 354 to 67 – all 7 “nay” votes were members of Boehner’s GOP caucus.

It’s not easy being John Boehner.

And it’s not likely to get easier any time soon.

“He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place,’’ said Mack Mariani, an associate professor of political science at Xavier University and a former congressional aide. “He’s got the tea partiers pushing him in one direction, completely opposed to higher taxes and spending; and the more moderate members of his caucus thinking the tea party people have too much power.”

Still, Mariani said, “I can’t blame Boehner; it was as about as good a scenario as he could have gotten under the circumstances.”

Boehner raised and spent millions of dollars in the last election cycle to get most of that GOP House majority elected, but it has not necessarily bought him loyalty when it comes down to hard issues like taxes, the debt ceiling, and spending cuts.

The West Chester Republican has been getting it from all sides lately.

Two former Republican House speakers – Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert – have made public comments critical of Boehner’s leadership style in recent days.

Hastert, on Fox News Radio, was particularly critical of Boehner for violating what has become known in the House as the “Hastert Rule.” The Hastert Rule says that only legislation that is supported by a majority of members of the majority party in the House can be brought to the floor for a vote.

By bringing the fiscal cliff legislation to the floor without a majority of Republicans supporting it, Boehner tossed the Hastert Rule out the window and, some say, established a new “Boehner rule.”

The result was that only 85 of his 241 House Republicans were willing to go along for the ride.
Mariani said though Boehner has signaled that he will push to move “things into the normal legislation process” – where legislation goes through committees, is open to debate and can be amended – a contrast to the fiscal cliff legislation, which landed on lawmakers’ desks only a few hours before a vote was called.
Mariani said it would be a good move for Boehner for several reasons.

“First, it is what he is good at,’’ said Mariani. “Second, the legislative process is a slow and grinding one, which takes away a bit of the bully pulpit advantage the president has going for him.”

And, third, Mariani said, it puts the burden on committee chairs and members to come up with workable deals.

“That takes a bit of the heat off of Boehner and leadership and spreads responsibility around the caucus,’’ Mariani said.

Tough nuts to crack are coming; and coming soon – raising the debt ceiling, spending, tax reform.

Boehner, it would seem has two choices – take charge of his GOP caucus and find a way to get them under control; or watch the real decision-making happen on the Senate side of the Capitol.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.