WASHINGTON, January 6, 2015 – The 114th Congress is now in session, and John Boehner is firmly positioned to retain his job as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Two months ago, President Obama appeared to be on the ropes. His agenda had been thoroughly repudiated in the voting booths, dragging down just about every incumbent Democrat who could be tied to it. His poll numbers were low, and Republicans took a solid majority in the Senate and their biggest House majority in nearly a century.
Two months is an eternity in politics, and things have changed.
Obama’s poll numbers are on the rise. One reason was predictable two months ago: The almost incessant negative campaign ads, most of the Republican ads featuring Obama, have stopped. The public is no longer seeing what was in effect an anti-Obama advertising campaign, so his popularity is rebounding.
A second reason is executive action: Obama used executive orders to expand amnesty for illegal immigrants, and he began to dismantle some sanctions against Cuba. The amnesty is popular with his base and with the Hispanic community. The Cuba opening looks like one of his smartest foreign policy initiatives in a long time, and it has wide support in the U.S.
On the other side, John Boehner is returning as House speaker, and the GOP base is underwhelmed. Boehner has shown himself adept at the game of governing in order to keep governing; he’s not interested in governing to achieve great goals. He has none. His goal, one shared by the Republican establishment, is to stay in power.
To that end, he will do nothing that will earn him strong criticism in the national press, and the one thing he fears most in that regard is a government shutdown. There will be none, and so his “nuclear option” is off the table. That’s good news for Obama.
The House under Boehner will engage in ritual, symbolic votes to oppose the president’s agenda. They will probably vote again against Obamacare. The Senate will probably kill that bill, but in the unlikely event that they pass it, Obama will veto it and it will be done with.
They will vote to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That vote will succeed in both the House and the Senate, and the president will veto it. The falling price of oil has at least temporarily made the project economically unsound anyway, and a veto will boost Obama’s popularity with his base. Environmental activists consider themselves neglected by Obama, but a Keystone veto will be like their amnesty or don’t-ask-don’t-tell reversal.
House votes on Obamacare and Keystone will simultaneously be sops to conservative voters and late Christmas gifts to President Obama. That’s a corner Congressional Republicans, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, have painted themselves into. That’s the corner you get when you have no vision, no leadership, and no guts.
Their fear of the “circular firing squad” is keeping House Republicans from seriously considering opposition to Boehner. There are conservatives in the House who oppose Boehner, but they are as adept at caving as mainstream Republicans are. They have no hope of electing one of their own to the speaker position, but if they held together, they could at least credibly threaten a veto of Boehner. They could force Boehner to take a more ideologically coherent line than he usually does.
They will cave, not just today, but for the rest of the 114th Congress.
Boehner can retaliate against Republican opposition. He has in the past, and he will now. He can keep them off desirable committees, keep them out of chairmanships. But he can’t deprive them of their vote, and they have the votes to make his life hell.
This makes Obama’s “fourth quarter” game much easier. It’s better to be lucky than to be right, and Obama is one lucky man.