House Dems vow to protect Boehner from a conservative coup

After Tuesday’s big cave on amnesty, with more than two-thirds of his own caucus opposing the bill he brought to the floor, it’s really the least Democrats can do.

John Boehner, Democratic Speaker of the House.

Democrats from across an ideological spectrum say they’d rather see Boehner remain atop the House than replace him with a more conservative Speaker who would almost certainly be less willing to reach across the aisle in search of compromise. Replacing him with a Tea Party Speaker, they say, would only bring the legislative process — already limping along — to a screeching halt.

“I’d probably vote for Boehner [because] who the hell is going to replace him? [Ted] Yoho?,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Wednesday, referencing the Florida Tea Party Republican who’s fought Boehner on a host of bipartisan compromise bills…

“Then we would get Scalise or somebody? Geez, come on,” said [Rep. Raul] Grijalva, who referenced House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). “We can be suicidal, but not stupid.”…

Other Democrats suggested they would side with Boehner for one simple reason: They’re hoping to move bipartisan legislation this Congress and see Boehner as a more moderate leader with a penchant for compromise. 

It takes a majority of the whole House to oust him so if Democrats aren’t willing to play ball with tea partiers on this, there’s not a prayer of dumping him. But … why wouldn’t Democrats play ball? If I were Pelosi and staring at five more years of Republican rule in the House (at a minimum), I’d be thinking less about ways to entrench the GOP majority with successful bipartisan bills and more about how to convince voters that the party’s at war with itself and incapable of governing. The obvious way to do that is to join in ousting Boehner, see him replaced by a conservative like Scalise (or a squishier conservative like Kevin McCarthy), and then watch the new Speaker dig in against everyone — including Mitch McConnell, who’ll be pushing back against tea-party pressure by urging House Republicans to compromise with the Senate, and with Democrats, on major legislation. The worst-case scenario for Pelosi after all that is that the new Speaker quickly betrays the right and joins her, McConnell, and Reid to get bills to Obama’s desk, leaving conservative morale crushed. Best-case scenario: The new Speaker ends up butting heads over and over with McConnell and his Senate caucus, producing 18 more months of gridlock but jumpstarting a juicy media narrative about Republican civil war and paralysis which Democrats can run on in 2016. That won’t put Pelosi back in the majority (yet) but it’s something to build on in 2018 and 2020.

The Democratic argument for keeping Boehner in place, as noted in the excerpt, is that a more conservative Speaker will be less likely to compromise, killing any hope of a big bipartisan deal on tax reform or immigration before Obama leaves office. I wonder, though, how likely even Boehner will be to compromise as we get closer to the presidential election. If Republican presidential candidates spend the next six months bashing comprehensive immigration reform and then Boehner and McConnell strike a grand bargain on amnesty, that’ll make for some awfully awkward party messaging. Scott Walker and Marco Rubio are already desperately trying to walk back their prior support for comprehensive reform; what spin do they roll out if Boehner turns around this fall and makes a deal with Democrats on a bill? If you believe, as many do, that bold legislative moves from Congress will become less likely as we get closer to the election then Democrats would really be losing nothing by joining tea partiers to oust Boehner. There’s going to be gridlock whether Boehner’s in charge or Scalise is in charge. Might as well go with the latter and make conservatives own it.

Maybe Pelosi’s playing a long game here. There’s a better chance that Republicans will control all of government after the next election than there is that Democrats will, thanks to the GOP’s stranglehold on the House. If Scott Walker ends up getting elected and Republicans hold on to a majority in the Senate, the only thing stopping the GOP from enacting whatever laws it wants is the filibuster, and McConnell could go ahead and nuke that at any time. Pelosi may be thinking that her best hope of moderating whatever comes out of a Republican Congress under President Walker is to have a centrist like John Boehner playing gatekeeper. Better to leave him in place and forfeit the short-term “GOP civil war” strategy than dump him for Scalise and have tea partiers effectively in charge of legislation circa 2017.

Exit question: Are we sure that Boehner is less likely to do a deal on immigration reform as we get closer to the election? Like I said, it would be confounding to GOP messaging … but his pals in the donor class would love, love, love it, and although it would place the presidential field in a bind temporarily, it would also give them a way to pander to two key groups. During the primaries, Rubio could impress conservatives by saying, “I oppose this deal. We should have gotten stronger guarantees for border security before proceeding to legalization.” And then, during the general election, he could impress Latino voters by saying, “Although I disagreed with elements of Congress’s new immigration act, I risked my own political life to try to pass comprehensive reform in 2013. As president, I’ll do my best to execute the law in a way that improves border security and brings hard-working immigrants out of the shadows.” Why pander to one core constituency when you can pander to two? An immigration deal would allow Republican candidates to pander to both, assuming they did it smartly.

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