Boehner’s Balancing Act

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In politics and media, there is a basic (and quite cynical) maxim that says you should only pick fights with people bigger than you. A guppy who might ordinarily struggle to earn headlines can garner attention by attaching his name to a shark.  That’s basically what Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips did by writing a letter to John Boehner that informs the Speaker he “looks like a fool” in the spending-cut debate — in part because he hasn’t, by dint of sheer willpower alone, forced the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House to comply with the House proposal to slash $61 billion in discretionary spending this fiscal year. As Dave Weigel has written, Phillips is viewed as something of a phony by many Tea Partyers, but he’s perfected the media party trick of piggybacking on the name recognition of others, whether it’s urging a primary challenge to Boehner or a Sarah Palin RNC-chairmanship. As a personal-branding ploy, it’s rather clever–here Politico dutifully offers highlights from the salvo–since one of the intrigues of the 112th Congress is the prospect of a rift between “establishment” House Republicans and Tea Party-propelled freshman upstarts. (Phillips gets bonus SEO-optimization points for working Charlie Sheen’s name into his rant.)

There is a legitimate strain of frustration with Boehner circulating within the Tea Party movement. On Tuesday, a coalition of Tea Party groups based in Boehner’s Ohio district fired off a letter demanding that Boehner “fulfill [his] promises” by meeting the tenets of the Pledge to America, which promised to cut $100 billion from the Obama budget blueprint within a year, and refusing to raise the debt limit. But the criticism isn’t coming from rank-and-file House Republicans, let alone the self-styled freshman gadflies. For all the sturm und drang about a Republican conference running wild, Boehner has juggled the competing forces within his party pretty deftly. I spoke to a number of Republican freshmen for my dead-tree story this week, and nearly across the board they praised the Speaker’s handling of the budget battle, from his decision to allow a free-wheeling floor debate to the open-amendment process to the largely whip-free approach taken by leadership. A few weeks back, the RSC floated a $2.5 trillion/10 year spending-cut proposal that was basically a Tea Party fantasy, and a group of freshmen sent word to leadership that the $32 billion figure they’d arrived at was unacceptalbe. Boehner forestalled an internecine squabble by calling a meeting with the freshmen and essentially telling them “We hear you, and we’re with you.”

“I think he learned a lot from watching Gingrich and the mistakes Gingrich made,” says Linda Killian, whose book The Freshmen chronicles the class of 1994 Congress, when Boehner served as Republican conference chairman. “He’s walking the tightrope pretty well, keeping his wild freshmen happy while trying to be pragmatic.” In her book, Killian recounts a November 1995 meeting, held as the unruly freshmen were agitating for a budget showdown, in which Boehner tells other top Republicans, “We need to spend some time getting these guys in line because they’re so used to getting their way. They’re always overreacting.” So far, the freshmen have been getting their way this time around as well. It will be interesting to see whether Boehner’s approach becomes more heavy-handed as the stakes get bigger.