If House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seeks to pass a budget deal with Obama and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) despite the likely defections of more than a hundred of his fellow Republican Congressmen, he will no longer be the de facto Republican leader. The fifty-nine Republican Congressmen he lost in selling his phony $38 billion in spending cuts as he gave Obama a Continuing Resolution to run the government will be peanuts next to the massive defections he will face if he tries to sell a deal without serious cuts and caps in spending and a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget.
Boehner would, in that event, really be more of a coalition speaker than the Republican leader – the voice of an unsteady, unstable, and unsustainable coalition of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. Legislative chambers cannot be run from the middle and those who try are destined to fall into the resulting partisan gap. It is only after winning a decisive majority of his own caucus that Boehner can begin to contemplate a deal with the Democrats and remain the real leader of the House Republicans.
Meet the new Congressman who would take over the power, if not the title of House Speaker: Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Va). Cantor, who has remained true to the views of his caucus and reflects their refusal to let Obama off the hook, would then become the real voice of the Congressional Republicans.
The gravitational pull luring Boehner away from his role as Party leader comes from his Senate Colleague Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). Elected as Senate Minority Leader, McConnell seems to have left his Republican roots behind and moved into a coalition with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to deliver to President Obama what he most covets: the ability to borrow more money without real cuts in spending. And the Kentucky Senator’s influence is moving Speaker Boehner away from his GOP caucus and into the seductive role of deal maker.
If McConnell and Boehner cut a deal with President Obama which does not include big cuts and strict caps on federal spending or a balanced budget amendment, they will be making a deal that can be enacted only with major Democratic support. In the House, Boehner could face the defection of more than half of his caucus, holding the balance in line by a combination of arm twisting and tearful begging.
The fissure that is emerging in the Republican House and Senate caucuses over the budget deal is no mere difference of opinion. The McConnell wing is essentially saying that the Party’s sole goal has to be to win in 2012 and that it is unwise to risk it by a high profile battle with Obama over spending. Better to let the Democratic President reinforce his Party’s spend and borrow reputation by giving it enough rope. Then, they reason, the way will be clear to defeat him in 2012 and take real power.
On the other side are the fiscal hawks, including most of the freshman class of 2010. Elected on a pledge of rolling back the deficit and cutting government spending, they are determined to begin that task in 2011 without waiting for the presidential elections. They were elected to do a job and they are determined to see in through, using the leverage of the debt limit battle to do so.
Of course, the McConnell folks are wrong that a battle over the debt limit would hurt the GOP. A national fight to hold down the deficit and cut spending is just what the Republican Party needs to get up and excited about battling Obama. The spectacle would animate their ranks, enthuse their base, and give them credibility for the 2012 election. Simply punting, as McConnell proposes, will incur the electorate’s scorn and cynicism.
So what will Boehner do? Will he cross the aisle and become, in effect, a coalition Speaker? Or will he stand firm for cutting and capping spending, and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget? We’ll know soon.