Boehner on the Hot Seat

Whose name do you hear spoken most often from politicians decrying this week’s shutdown of the federal government? It’s not the president’s name, but John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House. This is by design.

It links the speaker, who is relatively popular, with Newt Gingrich, who is not. If this shutdown is reminiscent of the 1995 shutdown, we know how it turns out for Republicans — badly.

But Boehner is nothing like Gingrich. The Ohio Congressman is a gradualist, a northern centrist, a corporatist, a plutocrat. It’s the Tea Party populists who have dragged him into this insurrection. It might be more true that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid goaded Tea Party members into dragging Boehner onto his hot seat.

On vote after vote, Democrats have been pressing Boehner to end the Hastert Rule, which should be understood as the “other filibuster” that has been paralyzing Congress. Illinois Rep. Denny Hastert ran the House of Representatives after Gingrich by refusing to bring any legislation for a floor vote unless and until he knew his party could pass it without the benefit of the opposition party.

Although Gingrich followed the rule, it’s named for Hastert because he talked about it. He stated his job was “to please the majority of the majority.” Lately, he has disclaimed the strategy or the rule that still bears his name.

The Hastert Rule effectively ended inter-party compromise. Committee work and conference committees ceased being relevant for legislation. The real action shifted to party caucus meetings, where intra-party deals were made, or not.

Lately, mostly not. Since nearly half his party’s caucus refused to vote for his continued speakership, he’s been on probation and he knows it.

Many of Boehner’s allies and friends in Congress fear the Tea Party activists in their own districts. They have nightmares beating back an anti-Boehner flamethrower in a low-turnout primary. As Boehner eyes the far right factions in the House, many Republicans must do the same with their supporters back home.

Floor votes on immigration, education reform, farming and transportation have all been stymied because of the Hastert Rule. Each would likely pass the House with a healthy majority once the votes of the Democrats could be counted. Boehner has refused to schedule those votes. He cannot risk the ire of his right flank. Any bipartisan legislation could end Boehner’s speakership.

The stakes keep getting higher. This week, the federal government has been shuttered because Boehner won’t allow Democrats, along with a few Republicans who don’t fear a primary challenge, to pass a clean budget bill. In less than two weeks, the pressure will ratchet further. The full faith and credit of the world’s preeminent government will be at risk.

Each news cycle shows Boehner flailing in a new direction to avert cataclysm. He claims to understand well what must be done, while also claiming he’s unable to do it alone. True enough. He’d love a deal, but making any deal risks his leadership position over the House. Any support from Democrats serves only as a footstool to hoist the Speaker onto his own petard.

Unless they pledge that it won’t.

Here’s a deal Boehner could take, if offered. The Democratic leadership in the House could circulate a letter, gathering signatories who pledge, in return for clean House votes on the budget and debt ceiling, to vote for Boehner’s continued Speakership, as long as Republicans maintain their majority in the House.

The deal would require no Republican support, demolish the Hastert Rule, revive bipartisan solutions, marginalize the Tea Party, and put Boehner back in the business of legislating. It doesn’t produce the Grand Bargain that everyone wants to hope for, but it paves the way for it and more.

Once the House leadership does more than serve the “majority of the majority,” the abuse of the Senate’s filibuster will again draw the derision it deserves. Reid has purposely not dismissed his prerogative to alter Senate rules if necessary, though we can hope both sides will lower their voices after the Tea Party extremists have been shunted off the stage.

Barack Obama may yet have the transformative presidency he had hoped.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs