John Boehner faces moment of truth

April 1, 2011


Tacking to the right but keeping his eye on compromise, House Speaker John Boehner is disclaiming any budget deal with the White House even as he clearly wants to deliver one soon — in what’s become the most defining test yet of his speakership.

“We don’t have anything to sell. I hope we do,” the Ohio Republican told POLITICO in a brief exchange in the hallway Thursday.

And in a debate all about numbers, Boehner wants to hear none, playing for time and trusting in his considerable people skills until the pieces of his plan come together next week.

Outside the Capitol Thursday, tea party activists chanted: “Cut it or shut it.” Inside, staff members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees worked toward crafting a six-month compromise bill, setting annual spending at $1.055 trillion, $28 billion more than the House-passed level but still $33 billion less than spending levels when this Congress began.

No matter for Boehner: “There is no number,” he told freshman Republicans, and at a morning press conference, the speaker steered clear of specifics, promising to “fight for the largest spending cuts that we can get to keep the government open.”

The restlessness — and perils — that Boehner faces are real.“If you set the bar low, you jump low,” Florida Rep. Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and freshman Republican, reciting a lesson he learned in airborne training.“When you have the epic proportion problem that we have here, it’s very disturbing to me that in Washington, D.C., we always continue to talk about what less we can do and not what more we can do to resolve this issue,” West said of the budget fight. “I think we’re letting the American people down, and I don’t believe in letting anyone down.”

South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, one of the freshmen who represents his class in GOP leadership, said he could not be sold on anything in the neighborhood of what is now being discussed with the White House.“You gotta deepen the cuts to sell it at all to me,” Scott told POLITICO. “I can’t do $33 billion. It’s a good starting point.”

Boehner’s whole relationship with his freshman class is a critical part of the dynamic now. These are the lawmakers who made him speaker, remind him of himself as a younger lawmaker and have led him to shed some of his jaded, worldly style like so many William Holden characters in old movies.

He is now their elected leader but also their mentor, and by having opened up the House to a full debate on the budget cuts, he is in a position to now ask the freshmen to trust him when the time has come to move to the next fight.

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