By Margaret Carlson
Question for Speaker John Boehner: Are you better off than you were a month ago? Yes, yes, yes. Finally, the conditions are ripe for a duffer with a year-round tan, a pack of smokes and a glass of Merlot to do some business.
Boehner bought himself a big, soft cushion of votes for the next Congress, raising $100 million and campaigning across the country to elect pragmatists who could make him a historic speaker. Before that, he was on his way to being the least productive speaker in modern times with the fewest pieces of legislation signed into law. Before him now lies a shot at fulfilling his dream of greatness.
And with the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Boehner has a partner who shares his yearning for posterity. McConnell's not getting any younger and wants to be in the pantheon of Everett Dirksen and Howard Baker, not remembered for his futile aspiration to make Barack Obama a one-term president. What better moment for everyone to belly up to the Speaker's Balcony and make some deals.
But then the Nicorette-chewing occupant of the White House foiled Boehner again. The speaker warned the president that issuing an executive order on immigration would poison the well. He was right about the poisoning, wrong about the well. It's Boehner's water that's been rendered toxic. Meeting with his conference Tuesday, Boehner's faced some spitting mad legislators who want to punish the president for circumventing Congress on immigration, an issue that encompasses all that voters in the Republicans' one-sided, overwhelmingly white, aging, border- closing, districts fear: The Other taking their jobs, invading their schools, burdening city services. Oh, and then there's the provocation of Obama acting like a president.
The clock is ticking for Boehner because funding for the federal bureaucracy ends Dec. 11. He's been busy giving the rank and file ways to vent short of scratching their itch to shut down the government.
His members Tuesday got to hold a show trial on the immigration order where Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was the only administration witness to testify. The House Homeland Security Committee's chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, has called Obama's executive action a "threat to our democracy."
Meanwhile, Boehner was putting the final touches on a plan to defuse firebrands such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a feverish opponent of immigration reform who has the energy to inflame the caucus. He's among those who still believe that shutting down the government in 2013 was a success and that Boehner, with his dire warnings, was dead wrong.
King has a point. With victory in the midterms, Republicans didn't pay the price Boehner predicted. As Exhibit A for their case, conservatives hold up the scalp of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor with his Wall Street and establishment sympathies. Emboldened, they now intend to "Cantor" others, including Sen. John McCain, for perceived softness on immigration. The New York Times reported that activists would love to recruit McCain's former running mate, Sarah Palin, now residing in Arizona, to do the Cantoring.
With a couple of moves that save face more than they change anything, Boehner has co-opted his Cantoring caucus, for now. House Republicans will vote Thursday on a resolution proposed by Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida that, he says, takes the "ink out of" Obama's pen by declaring the president lacked the authority for last month's executive action. Then they will pretend to take a surgical strike at the budget by punishing Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, with only a continuing resolution that funds it until March. This is an even limper tack because the agency carrying out Obama's executive order to end deportations for millions is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is financed by user fees. There's no way to cripple that.
Bohener was willing to play along, as long as the gestures are symbolic and the grandstanding remains theater.
"We don't believe that the president has the authority to do what he did," Boehner said at a news conference. "This is a serious breach of our Constitution. It is a serious threat to our system of government."
But members of the conservative caucus said his idea of passing a resolution condemning Obama's executive action while nipping at Homeland Security's funding was a punt and they made clear they would want to see more when Republicans take control of both chambers of Congress in January.
Still this is a victory for the speaker, who couldn't keep his members in line in past budget battles.
Yes, Boehner is much better off than he was a month ago. He talked his restive troops into feeling good about nothing. This fits the election about nothing (according to a CNN/ORC poll, only 16 percent of the public believes Republicans were handed a mandate by the midterms, and 74 percent believes the election was a rejection of Democrats for their more recent mistakes and weaknesses).
So, Boehner gets his first victory by getting his caucus to go along with an empty one. This clears the way to act like the speaker he's waited years to be. He can now move to real business: renewing expired tax breaks for individuals and businesses, approving a defense policy measure that has passed for more than 50 years, appropriating funds to combat Islamic State militants and to battle Ebola.
Some will miss the drama. In recent years, nothing has said Christmas in the Capitol like shuttered monuments and forced vacations. This year, Boehner can relax on the Speaker's balcony, drinks and smokes on him.