To put the divided House Republicans under a microscope following Speaker John Boehner’s decision to step down and leave Congress at month’s end, one need only consult with Idaho’s own two representatives.
Rep. Raul Labrador was among the handful of conservatives who met with Boehner the day before he announced plans to resign. They reluctantly acceded to the speaker’s strategy on a government funding bill, but told him that his speakership would most likely be challenged as a result and that they would oppose him. Boehner, Labrador says, never fought hard enough for Republican positions.
Rep. Mike Simpson, long a Boehner supporter, says the speaker would have won such a vote easily, but chose to step down rather than put moderates in the awkward position of having to support him. Boehner’s conservative opponents have no ability to compromise and no interest in governing, he said.
Third-termer Labrador is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, 37 of the House’s most conservative members. Their disagreements with the speaker over policy and procedure have been numerous and well documented. Simpson, in his ninth term, is Boehner’s close friend. He labels himself a “thoughtful conservative” but is generally viewed in the current House calculus as a moderate.
The only thing the two agreed on in interviews last week was that the dynamics among House Republicans and in the House overall will change with Boehner’s departure. They don’t agree on what that change will look like. But in the final three months of the year, Congress has to resolve some major issues: long-term (as opposed to stop-gap) federal spending, highway funding, the fate of the Export-Import Bank and how much the nation can borrow to meet its obligations. Given that urgent agenda, Congress-watchers will soon see what form that change takes, if change comes at all.
A MEETING WITH BOEHNER
Labrador was among the group of five Freedom Caucus members who met with Boehner Sept. 24, the day before the speaker’s surprise departure announcement. The first topic was a stop-gap funding bill, called a continuing resolution, to keep the government running into December.
Conservative House members, seizing on accusations of unethical behavior by Planned Parenthood, had threatened to block the extension unless Planned Parenthood’s federal funding was cut.
According to Labrador’s account of the meeting, Boehner told the caucus members that the continuing resolution coming before the House would not defund Planned Parenthood. Instead, the House would vote on a “clean” bill and form a subcommittee to investigate Planned Parenthood. Boehner said he had the votes for his plan.
“He asked us if we were OK with that plan and a couple of us said that would have been a great plan seven weeks ago,” Labrador said. Learning earlier, Labrador said, would have given opponents time to build a case against Planned Parenthood and win support for their cause.
Instead, Labrador said, the caucus told Boehner, “now you’re coming to us at the last minute not having built your case with the American people and telling us we don’t have the support for what we want.”
Labrador said the parties agreed to disagree. The second discussion item was a parliamentary move one of the Freedom Caucus members put forth over the summer — a motion to vacate the chair — that is, remove the speaker. Boehner wanted to know if the caucus planned to move forward with it.
“Our answer was, ‘No, we are not bringing that to the floor because it’s not a Freedom Caucus initiative,’ ” Labrador said. But they did tell Boehner “you need to know that if it’s brought to the floor, none of us can vote for you ... and you also need to know that we know of X number of people inside and outside of the Freedom Caucus that are not going to vote for you, which therefore means that you don’t have the votes to survive.”
Labrador said the meeting ended amicably.
When Boehner told Republicans the following morning that he was resigning, Labrador said he wasn’t surprised, even though Boehner had given no prior indication the day before.
When he started speaking that morning, “I texted somebody immediately,” Labrador said. “The first words out of his mouth, I said, ‘He’s quitting.’ ”
‘CLASS AND CHARACTER’
The clear implication, based on Labrador’s account of the meeting, is that Boehner stepped down because he wanted to avoid a fight he couldn’t win, one that would further damage the fractured Republican caucus. But Simpson said if such a vote had come, Boehner would have prevailed easily.
“He would have won overwhelmingly and he knew that,” Simpson said. In doing so, though, moderates who supported him would have been exposed to criticism and forced to defend their votes, inviting perhaps more conservative opposition. Boehner didn’t want to put members through that, Simpson said. “He has more class and character than the Freedom Caucus does combined.”
With all the infighting, no one could be faulted for betting that Boehner was mostly just weary of five years spent herding cats, and that a “more of the same” prospect made an exit from politics wildly appealing.
THE PATH AHEAD: FORWARD, BACKWARD, OR IN CIRCLES?
Labrador thinks that with Boehner’s exit, the House’s outcast stepchildren who helped Boehner to the door will now gain entry to the tent. Simpson says there will be a backlash against them. Simpson cited the Freedom Caucus defection of Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who resigned from the caucus Sept. 16 saying its hardball approach was hurting the conservative cause.
“They don’t have any concept of what it takes to govern,” Simpson said. More moderate Republicans, he said, now are talking about “taking down any bill that they bring up” and making them “irrelevant” by compromising with Democrats to get bills passed.
It’s the kind of talk that makes Boehner’s critics seethe. They wanted Boehner to be more aggressive in opposing the Democrats and the president.
“We are the people’s House and I just don’t think he (fought) forcefully enough,” Labrador said of Boehner. “He expected other people to act in the same way that he would act in a similar situation, and I think that was his strength and his weakness.”
“There’s some backlash,” Labrador said. “But frankly there was a realization that this place was not working ... and even many of the members who are mad at us right now, they have to agree that it wasn’t working.”
Republicans are scheduled to caucus Thursday on a replacement for Boehner. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is the leading contender, but such is the continuing disaffection among the Freedom Caucus members with the party establishment that on Friday Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz emerged as a dark-horse candidate for the speaker’s chair.
The final House vote on the speaker won’t occur until later this month. Boehner said he would leave Oct. 30 and is said to be working to clear the legislative deck for his successor. Simpson said the Freedom Caucus already has given McCarthy a list of its “demands” to win the support of its members.
Whoever becomes speaker, Simpson predicted, is “going to face the same situation when he can’t deliver everything the Freedom Caucus wants.”
Labrador said his caucus’s main demand is to be included.
“We’re trying to include everybody,” he said. “They have always tried to exclude us. And that’s why we have the fundamental differences that we have.”