John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Steve Bell Adds His Two Cents

Posted on December 21, 2011
This post is from my old friend Steve Bell, from the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee



An old joke heard often in the Southwest ends this way:  “It isn’t always your enemies that get you into it;  it isn’t always your friends who get you out of it;  but, when you are in it up to your neck, keep your damned mouth shut.”

Unfortunately, Speaker John Boehner’s predicament confirms again the truism above.

The rebellion of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party in the House has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Two weeks ago we wrote that inclusion of the Keystone XL pipeline language in the “payroll tax cut” bill had been a neat bit of jiu-jitsu that gave Congressional  Republicans at least a chance to stop their erosion in public opinion polls.  We neglected to take into account two things:  theology and acting out.

Einstein once wrote:  “Only two infinite things exist:  the universe and stupidity.  And, I am unsure of the universe.”

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To summarize:  apparently Boehner on behalf of his caucus made a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance for long-term unemployed, and reversal of an impending 27 per cent cut in reimbursement under Medicare for health care providers.  The Senate passed the bill, 89-10, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid closed down shop for the year.

Conventional wisdom, and apparently the Speaker, forecast passage of the bill in the House.  Both were wrong.

The damage to the Republican brand is profound.  Tax cuts, energy independence, good-paying jobs was a message that had started resonating for the GOP.  Pressure for quicker approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and its promise of another real step toward independence from oil from the Middle East began to divide the Democratic Party.  Keeping Medicare reimbursement at current levels removed a possible attack line in 2012 campaign advertising.  Unemployment Insurance expiration will only apply to the long-term unemployed, but the room for mis-understanding, reinforced once again by campaign messages, is huge.

Let’s see:  “Republicans support a tax increase on working men and women, but refuse to increase taxes on billionaires.”  “Republicans cut Medicare spending 27 per cent, forcing many doctors and hospitals to refuse Medicare patients.”  “Republicans deny help to Americans laid off from their jobs.”  You can conjure up the visuals accompanying those kinds of headlines.

“The Hill” ran a major story Monday (link) on its front page about the Boehner tenure.  One of the tenets of the story was, “…His colleagues say his biggest triumph lies in having kept the GOP conference united” in opposing the culture of spending.  That reminds us of how Custer kept his troops united in opposing the Indians at Little Big Horn.

At the beginning of this year, we wrote that the Speaker had the worst job in town.  Some of his leadership team seemed undependable.  He had 87 new members, most of whom didn’t know budget authority from outlays, but wanted to cut the deficit.  He had more than his share of new members who had almost no stake nor interest in making Congress work.  Indeed, some of them said that they way to change Washington, D.C., was to raze Washington, D.C.  They bragged that they had no interest in being re-elected.  Some of them believed, almost as  a matter of theology, that they were “The Elect.”

Just like the “Progressive Left” has paralyzed the Democratic House caucus, the new Republicans have frozen Congress.  It doesn’t work…and both extremes are happy with that.

We hear often that the Speaker should simply find enough Democrats to pass controversial legislation, and leave about 80 or so House Republicans out in the cold.  Only one problem exists with that notion:  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has absolutely no inclination to lobby her caucus to support any Republican initiative.  The old saw goes like this:  “When your enemy is knotting his own noose, leave him alone.”  Pelosi has watched, probably with something between astonishment and amusement.

Seven continuing resolutions for appropriations, a downgrade by a major rating agency of American sovereign debt, three trips to the brink of serious government disruption—this legacy may well haunt many Republicans in November, 2012.  Many of the newcomers were elected by less than 55 per cent in 2010, one of the best Republican years in more than a half century.  Many were elected because of unusual turnout, very high enthusiasm among soft Republicans and independents, and the failure of younger and minority voters to turn up at the polls as they had in 2008.  Apparently, these newcomers believed that every turnout on election days would resemble November, 2010.  In 1980, Republicans won the Senate for the first time in decades.  In 1986, every single one of those first-term Republicans lost except one.

As Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a serious and thoughtful Senator, said on CNBC this morning:  “This has been awful,” when he was asked about the impact of the House GOP fiasco.  We suspect that that judgment holds sway in the office of the Speaker this morning.  In “Politico” this morning, Manu Raju and John Bresnahan write  silence of Senate Minority Leader McConnell as this all unfolds.  Most often, such silence speaks volumes.

A final note:  alongside the theologians in both parties stand House members who believe that “if I can’t get my way, I will just throw a tantrum and vote no on everything.”  Counselors who deal with teenagers often call similar behavior “acting out.”  Republicans will argue, correctly, that Democrats do that, too.  Here’s the difference—you are in the majority in the House.  It’s your job to get the basics done at least.

Poor John Boehner, surrounded by too many members who “believe” and too many who “rebel.”  He probably years for a few more who will help him govern.