Earlier in the week, many took note of John Boehner’s second abrogation in as many weeks of the so-called Hastert Rule in the House – that the speaker would not bring a bill to the floor for a vote of the full House unless it could garner a majority of the majority Republicans. Which raised a question: how long could Mr. Boehner keep his job if he cannot command a majority of his caucus on the big issues of the day (in this case, the Fiscal Cliff deal and Hurricane Sandy relief)?
Turns out the answer is that Boehner does command the vast majority of his caucus. All but the minority, hardcore Tea Party wing that always says no to whatever President Obama proposes (even if it was their party’s idea in the first place). These were the folks that effectively vetoed the president’s legislative priorities over the last two years, caused the county to lose its AAA credit rating over the debt ceiling show-down in 2011 and would have been happy to sail over the Fiscal Cliff this New Year.
But the Tea Party, rejectionist wing of the Republican Party is no longer calling the shots. It turns out that Boehner has assembled a coalition of moderates and pragmatic conservatives. The moderates vote with a majority of Democrats to pass bills into law on a bipartisan basis. And the pragmatic conservatives vote “no” with the wholehearted expectation and desire that the bill will pass without the need for their votes. This allows the pragmatic conservatives to vote against these bipartisan bills – thus keeping their conservative credentials pristine in the event of a primary challenge back home – while allowing the government to function.
The New York Times dubbed these pragmatic conservatives the “Vote No/Hope Yes Caucus.” Based upon those who went on record voting in favor of the Fiscal Cliff deal and Hurricane Sandy relief in the last two week, there appear to be between 49 and 85 moderate Republicans in the House coalition. On the opposing extreme (meant literally here), the Tea Party Caucus in the last session of the House proudly boasted 59 members. And this number is consistent with the 50 or so Republicans hold-outs that tanked Boehner’s “Plan B” alternative to Obama’s grand bargain proposal to resolve the Fiscal Cliff. That means that pragmatic conservatives comprise somewhere around one-third to one-half of the 233 members of the entire Republican House caucus.
It may be a passive-aggressive form of governance, but at least these pragmatic conservatives are permitting Washington to function – if not taking responsibility for their votes.
President Obama is using carrots and sticks to keep these pragmatic conservatives from joining with the rejectionist wing. From immigration reform to gun safety to taxes and spending, the president is taking case to the voting public, which just returned him to office for a second term and who will blame Republicans for a government shut-down, default or other self-imposed calamity. At the same time, the stealthy bipartisan approach allows these pragmatic conservatives to benefit from good legislative outcomes without any fingerprints.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer today endorsed this form of pass-aggressive governance. Krauthammer’s theory is that Republicans cannot rule from the House; Obama just won reelection and he should be given enough rope to hang himself with his liberal policies. At least his first two observations are well grounded. Says Krauthammer:
“The general rule is: From a single house of Congress you can resist but you cannot impose. . . .
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“Republicans should simply block what they can. Further tax hikes, for example. . . .
“Aren’t you failing the country, say the insurgents? Answer: The country chose Obama. He gets four years.
“Want to save the Republic? Win the next election.”
Win the next election, indeed. Good luck on that, but in the meantime, it seems President Obama has figured out a way, along with Speaker Boehner, to permit the People’s business to move forward – begrudgingly inch-by-inch.
Krauthammer, though, is right about winning the next election, but in the opposite direction. If President Obama hopes to enact much of his bold second terms agenda, Democrats need to take back the House majority in the 2014 mid-term elections.