WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner is making deals again.
After three years of taking tough stands pushed by no-compromise tea party types — positions that ultimately led to last fall’s partial government shutdown — he’s returned to his roots as a conservative consensus-builder, and suddenly the House of Representatives is passing major bipartisan legislation.
He remains on fragile ground. The Republicans he leads in the House are still fractured over some of the day’s biggest issues, notably immigration and federal spending. But he’s returning to his roots as a dealmaker, and the result is a House that’s moving toward compromise, and action.
Since December, Boehner has pushed through budget deals crafted with Democratic support. He’s moved compromise legislation on farm policy. He’s led the effort to write immigration principles that include a path to legal status for those who are already in the country illegally.
Whether the 64-year-old Ohio Republican, now in his fourth year as speaker, continues to build on his newfound stature as the great compromiser might determine how his party fares in Congress and in November’s congressional elections. Also to be determined is how history regards Boehner.
“For years, he gave his caucus veto power over deals he could negotiate,” said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a research group. “The result was that he couldn’t cut any deals.”
In his new role as compromiser, “It creates problems with his caucus,” West said, “but it strengthens him as speaker.”
Many conservatives aren’t buying that. “He’s still figuring out how to be speaker,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America. “Conservatives who gave Republicans the majority think he should be a speaker who pushes the most conservative causes that he can.”
Boehner’s emergence as a consensus-builder began during October’s 16-day partial government shutdown. Hard-core conservatives pushed the strategy, their latest tactic in a yearslong war to dramatically cut federal spending.
Privately, Boehner wasn’t comfortable with the confrontational tactics. He was long known as a dealmaker, someone who could argue the conservative cause but bend enough to get things passed. He was a familiar sight in the speaker’s lobby in the back of the House chamber, smoking and schmoozing, and he helped write major education legislation a decade ago with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
In 2010, though, the tea party was ascendant, vowing to pare the size of government once and for all. The grass-roots movement was instrumental in electing 87 House Republican freshmen that year — and making Boehner the speaker. Claiming a mandate, tea party members pressed for budget battles rather than compromise. The shutdown was their ultimate weapon.
“He would talk about how dumb that strategy was. He thought it was a fool’s errand, but he had an obligation as a leader to execute it,” said former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, a Boehner friend who’s now the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate group.
The shutdown, ironically, helped Boehner.
Many conservatives appreciated his embrace of the strategy, not only because he embraced it publicly but also because it isolated and even discredited the hardest of the hard core, while establishment Republicans liked his private reluctance.
On Dec. 11, Boehner made his declaration of independence.