#cliffgate Will Be Boehner's Waterloo
Let's start with two basic definitions.
First, there's "#cliffgate" which, as I explained last week, is the name I'm now using for the coming fiscal cliff (yes, as hard as it might be to imagine, there will be another one later this year).
There are two reasons I’m calling it #cliffgate. The fact that Congress is letting it happen yet again is as scandalous as any of the other "gates" that have come before it. In addition, these days nothing is real unless it has its own hash tag. (Feel free to use #cliffgate early, often and with great pride as you tweet away about the impending federal budget ridiculousness.)
Second, there's "Waterloo," the Belgium town where Napoleon was defeated in 1815 for the final time and his inglorious reign ended.
What I'm saying is simple: #cliffgate, the budget fight that will take place later this year, may very well be the last big battle of House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) career and his ultimate political undoing.
I've posted before about Boehner's precarious position because of the fiscal cliff...I mean #cliffgate (here and here, for example)...so the fact that I'm saying that Boehner is, or soon will be in trouble won't be a surprise to regular CG&G readers.
But this time is different. Boehner will have to deal with #cliffgate 2013 after a steady series of legislative losses, political missteps and obvious public embarrassments (Anyone else remember his plan B?) that have revealed him to be one of the weakest and least effective speakers in American history. It will also be happening when the bane of Boehner's political existence -- the tea party wing of the Republican Party -- seems to have adopted even more of a hell-no-we-won't-compromise attitude. It will also be occurring when Democrats, who have often supplied the votes Boehner needed to pass key legislation when the tea party balked, appears to be far less inclined to help him out.
At least that's the lesson I take from last week's debacle in the House on the agriculture bill which, even though Boehner made it abundantly clear that he personally wanted it to pass, was voted down when House Republicans failed to vote for it in sufficient numbers. (Yes, I know that House Democrats failed to provide the 40 votes in favor they promised. But I also know that the lack of GOP support meant that bill would have been defeated even if all the promised Democratic votes had materialized.)
The problem with the ag bill was that the original version didn't appease the tea party wing's demands and the changes Boehner engineered to get additional GOP votes made the bill worse rather than better politically. Not only were the amendments Boehner allowed not enough to get more Republican votes, they made it easier for Democrats to oppose the legislation and provided them with an excuse to withhold support that had been promised.
It's not clear what was worse: Boehner relying on a plan that wouldn't work, his not recognizing that it wouldn't work or his moving ahead with a bill that was in serious trouble and, therefore, demonstrating that he has one of the tinniest of political tin ears since Jimmy Carter was president.
It's not likely that the last big fight in the House before the August recess over immigration will be any easier for Boehner or the result any different: The tea partiers are likely to be just as adamant about not compromising and the Democrats at least as reluctant to supply the GOP leadership with votes. In fact, House Republicans and Democrats are even less likely to find any common ground on immigration than they did on agriculture.
As a result, Boehner will head into #cliffgate events that will begin right after Labor Day with little to no room to maneuver and a seriously tarnished reputation as a speaker who can make things happen.
This is a #cliffgate recipe for disaster for both the federal budget and Boehner.
A strong speaker would make it clear to his tea partiers that he will work with Democrats if they don't provide him with a way to deal with the continuing resolution that will be needed by October 1, the debt ceiling increase that will be needed by around November 1 and the sequester that could occur January 15.
But Boehner taking that message to the House GOP caucus would be a violation of the Hastert rule that he very recently renewed his vows to follow. It would also ignite a firestorm in the caucus that could lead to immediate calls for Boehner to resign or the equivalent of a no-confidence vote. Either one would be a potentially politically fatal event for a sitting speaker.
If he wants to remain as speaker, the best political move for Boehner will be to side with the tea party on #cliffgate issues. But that almost certainly will get the House GOP and Boehner blamed by the business community and Wall Street for uncertainty from Washington, threatening the credit rating of the United States, increasing interest rates, sequester cuts to the Pentagon, etc. This round of blame will come in the wake of the series of Boehner-related political and legislative failures. That will result in serious discussions in the media and elsewhere about whether he's up to the job and, therefore, additional calls for him to resign and let some one else try to do better.
Could Boehner decide that #cliffgate can only be dealt with by working with a moderate GOP/Democratic coalition? Absolutely. But that too would likely doom his chances of remaining speaker and could even put his reelection to Congress in jeopardy as the tea partiers make him their prime target in the 2014 with a strong and well-financed primary opponent. And the fact that #cliffgate will be happening about a year before the 2014 election makes that a much more likely possibility than if it happened the next year.
It's hard to see how Boehner survives this either with his speakership or political manhood intact.
It’s also hard to see how anything good comes out of this as far as the budget is concerned.