Boehner feeds angry caucus fake red meat

HOUSE GOP: Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders emerge from heated caucus meeting on Capitol Hill.
HOUSE GOP: Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders emerge from heated caucus meeting on Capitol Hill. AP

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.

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 Obma 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.

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.

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 even more limp, 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.

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.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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