Boehner Expected To Keep His Job As House Speaker

Steve Inskeep talks to Robert Costa, Washington editor of the National Review, about the trials of House Speaker John Boehner. What makes it hard for Boehner to control the Republican caucus?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

One of the first things the new House of Representatives will do today is choose a leader. Speaker John Boehner expects to keep his job, though it's not as if the last few weeks have gone as he would have hoped.

INSKEEP: Boehner backed away from a broad deal on taxes and spending, when his fellow Republicans didn't support it. He then had to allow a vote on a smaller fiscal cliff deal, even though most Republicans opposed that too. And he finished the last Congress by blocking a vote on Hurricane Sandy relief, outraging Northeastern members of his own party.

The reporters who cover John Boehner in the House of Representatives include Robert Costa of National Review. He's in our studios. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT COSTA: Oh, great to join you.

INSKEEP: The impression is created that John Boehner is powerless to control his own caucus. Is he?

COSTA: Well, John Boehner failed to pass Plan B, and that was a devastating loss for him and control in this caucus. But he comes to the floor today as speaker of the House, trying to win reelection, trying to get that gavel once again. I think he has the support. I've been following all of these Republican conference meetings. He has the support.

The question is, moving forward - even though he still will probably have speaker's gavel - will he be in a position to make deals with the president, to make deals with the Senate on the big fiscal issues? And I'm not so sure about that.

INSKEEP: Why is it that it's so difficult for him to line up his membership behind him? I mean this is a House of Representatives where traditionally there's been a lot of discipline and the speaker has been a very, very powerful person.

COSTA: One of the main reasons, of course, is that during the whipping process, you no longer have earmarks. Earmarks used to be the key part of the whipping process.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people: whipping is lining up votes. It's getting people...

COSTA: That's right. When you're counting noses, you can offer some federal pork. But no longer can you do that. All Republicans have sworn off earmarks. So now Boehner has to just try to go on the floor and woo votes one by one, just argue it based on principle. And that's not very easy to do, as we've seen in the past few weeks.

INSKEEP: So you have lawmakers who will basically look at the speaker of the House and say, well, what can you do for me? And Boehner can't answer that question because of the way he's chosen to do his job.

COSTA: I think Boehner is really a better political operator than a lot of people give him credit for. Because he's in this tough situation. He's with many conservatives in the House who are always frustrated, yet a lot of conservative activists want to challenge John Boehner, but no one in the House leadership is willing to run against Boehner.

Boehner is pretty safe right now in his power because no one really wants his job as speaker of the House. It's very tough to herd these (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Do conservatives, the most conservative Republicans in the House, trust John Boehner, even if they will not vote the way that he wants them to vote?

COSTA: They have trusted him. For instance, they enabled him to go to the president and have these closed-door negotiations, trying to get a grand bargain of sorts as the fiscal cliff approaches. But Boehner last night went in front of the entire Republican caucus and said for no longer will he have any kind of closed-door meeting with the president. And that's a key sign that the conference has had enough of Boehner negotiating off to the side with the president.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. He's saying I'm not going to try with President Obama behind closed doors?

COSTA: No, it's not that - he said - Boehner said he's going to try to do it through regular order. That means he's not going to go have all these White House huddles with the president, trying to hash out something on the fiscal issues. He's going to try to just do it through the House floor, and that's much more complicated.

INSKEEP: Boehner always wanted to be speaker of the House. Or wanted for a very long time to be speaker of the House, and was tearful when he finally got the job. How frustrated is he by the job now?

COSTA: I think he's frustrated in the sense - remember, this is a guy who grew up in working-class southern Ohio, sweeping floors at his family's Andy's Cafe. And he's tough. He was tough in the 1990s when he lost his leadership position. A lot of people thought he'd retire from the House in '97, '98 when he fell out of leadership.

But he's a guy who stays on, fights on. And he's also good at wooing members, at bringing members together, even at the tough moments. And that's what he's been able to do, stay in power right now.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Robert Costa, right at the end of Congress, as we mentioned, he declined to allow a vote on hurricane relief for Hurricane Sandy, outraged members of his own party. You have Peter King, a New York Republican, saying New York and New Jersey residents should stop contributing to my own party. People were outraged. Why did he do that? Why did Boehner do that?

COSTA: So when the House brought this fiscal cliff vote to the floor, it was a very tough vote. A lot of Republicans were very unhappy that the Senate cobbled together this deal and they had to vote on the deal as a clean - no amendments. And so Boehner didn't want to put pressure on the House to come have another vote on stimulus spending. A lot of Republicans consider the Sandy relief to be stimulus spending. And he didn't want to do that out of respect to his Republican colleagues. Of course their complaints happen.

But this is a good example of how Boehner operates. He heard the complaints from Peter King and others, but he brought Peter King to his office. He had a meeting yesterday at 3:00; he was able to smooth out the differences. Everything's settled. That's how John Boehner works.

INSKEEP: He said we'll vote on this in the next Congress.

COSTA: That's right.

INSKEEP: Although this is, it sounds like, another indication of the limitations of this man's power.

COSTA: That's very true. John Boehner didn't want to have the vote. People pressured it. John Boehner worked with the people who were pressuring him. He's someone who doesn't act like a dictator within the House, but at the same time he does try to have his own agenda.

INSKEEP: Robert Costa of National Review, thanks very much.

COSTA: Thank you.

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