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A weak Boehner is bad for the GOP, Obama and America

ElectionsRepublican PartyJohn BoehnerBarack ObamaU.S. CongressTea Party Movement

Only a few days into the new year, the Grand Old Party has a huge political hangover from the events that rang in the tidings of 2013.

First came the escape from the fiscal cliff that saw its speaker of the House, John Boehner, embarrassed by his flock's failure to back his 11th-hour Plan B to avert it. Passing the ball to the Democratic-controlled Senate was an abdication of responsibility.

Then Mr. Boehner was hit with surrender of the GOP's never-new-taxes pledge. Worse, the abandonment came with a violation of the party leadership's so-called Hastert rule allowing bills to pass only with a majority of Republican members of the House voting in favor.

That caveat, going back to the reign of previous House Speaker Dennis Hastert from 1999-2007, was ignored by 85 House Republicans who voted with the Democrats to pass the compromise shaped by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Holding fast against raising the top income-tax rate for the richest Americans were 151 House Republicans, including two subordinates to Mr. Boehner in the GOP leadership, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, as well as tea party stalwarts.

On Thursday, the first day of the new Congress, Mr. Boehner was re-elected speaker, but not unanimously as he was after the GOP House takeover in 2010. This time a dozen Republican members either voted against him, voted present or abstained. Adding insult to injury, former Speaker Hastert warned Mr. Boehner he was flirting with loss of power by failing to achieve compliance with the Hastert rule.

"Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice," Mr. Hastert said in a Fox Radio News interview, "but when you start cutting deals where you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you're not in power anymore."

Mr. Hastert also took issue with a Boehner declaration that he was finished with negotiating one-one-one with President Obama. "When you give up that responsibility," Mr. Hastert said, "you really give up your ability to govern, and that's the problem," leaving the power to Mr. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Senate majority to decide.

All of this bodes ill for the next round of fiscal confrontations guaranteed by the failure to address the expiring debt ceiling deadline and entitlement reforms as part of the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. The tea party Republicans clearly suffered a setback at year's end, and they seem unlikely to give Mr. Boehner more leeway to salvage what he can for the smaller-government brigade from the fiasco just experienced.

The Republican failure to achieve the party's prime objective of 2012 — denying a second term to Mr. Obama — was not the GOP's only setback. The losing campaign of Mitt Romney also cemented its image as the party of the rich through his inept candidacy, persona and utterances. As a result, the most conservative Republicans will be prone to claim the problem was having the wrong nominee bearing the right message for victory.

Rather than recognizing that the course of legislative obstruction over Mr. Obama's first four years got the party nowhere, and responding to wiser heads preaching the need for greater ethnic inclusion, the House Republicans appear bent on digging in, to Mr. Boehner's continuing frustration.

Thus it appears that the emergence of the tea party movement, which just a few years ago was seen in many Republican quarters as providing a great injection of ideas, energy and enthusiasm into their ranks, has turned out to hamper the party's return to the role of responsible opposition.

At the same time, Mr. Obama seems unable to assert the sort of firm leadership that his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, achieved in dealing with Congress even in the face of the hostility of House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Mr. Obama's "victory" in the fiscal-cliff showdown was a very shallow one. As a result, in the weeks ahead, John Boehner will not be alone nursing a hangover from its mixed-bag outcome.

Nevertheless, it is the Republican Party that needs the deeper soul-searching, with losses in both the House and Senate in the new Congress, and bearing the brunt of public disapproval in the election polls.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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    ElectionsRepublican PartyJohn BoehnerBarack ObamaU.S. CongressTea Party Movement
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