House Speaker Boehner, so the thinking goes, is held hostage by the tea party members of his caucus. They, plus the more moderate House Republicans who fear tea-party primary challenges, form an effective majority of the Republican Caucus (the "majority of the majority," which, when you do the math, is a minority of the House). But it is important to remember that Rep. Boehner's official title is Speaker of the House of Representatives, not Speaker of the Republican Caucus. And therein — possibly — lies a way out of our current mess. Here's how:
In return for agreeing to bring up for a vote "clean" versions of a continuing resolution to fund the government and legislation to increase the debt ceiling, and for his agreement not to engage in similar brinkmanship in the future, the House Democrats would agree to support Mr. Boehner for speaker as long as the Republicans hold a majority in the House. He would be able to retain his speakership so long as he can capture the votes of 18 Republicans. Remember, the speaker is elected by the House, not by the majority caucus. With a small number of Republican votes (a minority of the majority) his speakership is secure.
Exactly what is meant by an agreement "not to engage in similar brinkmanship in the future?" One possible definition would be this: If a bill has a majority of House votes in favor of it, do not keep it off the floor to force acceptance of a minority view. One house of Congress with ability to filibuster is more than enough.
Of course, the Democrats might need to offer more than support for Mr. Boehner's speakership. Were he to accept this olive branch, he would incur the undying wrath of the right wing of his party, and the Koch brothers would undoubtedly run a tea party type against him in the next primary. But the Democrats could help here too. They could agree not to contest his seat in the general election. Should he lose the primary, he could coast to general-election victory as an independent. Speaker Boehner might also — legitimately — insist that the administration include him in a meaningful way in crafting future budgets.
An independent John Boehner — now there's a thought, and one that just might appeal to John Boehner himself.
This scheme is fraught with risk for all — not the least for Mr. Boehner. If he were to go down this path, he would likely be finished as a power in the Republican Party, even if the Democrats preserve his speakership. But perhaps this is not so much of a loss after all. The current tea-party path has no exit strategy, yet there will — ultimately — be an exit. It seems likely that Speaker Boehner will be badly damaged goods in the eyes of one wing or another of his caucus when this finally plays out. Maybe he can retain his speakership; maybe not. But he has to ask himself: At the end of the path the Republicans are on now, is the speakership a prize worth having?
The course I propose holds out the legitimate hope of something that is otherwise utterly unimaginable —that John Boehner will go down in history as a great speaker of the United States House of Representatives, one who can save us from immediate catastrophe and who can have a role in shaping policy for the future.
Bruce W. Hamilton is a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and teaches history at the Park School of Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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