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Quiet Win For Boehner? Bending The Entitlement Curve

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If the phrase “sustainable growth rate” sounds like it might be useful in putting you to sleep, you might have missed it.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) is quietly putting the finishing touches on a legacy item, a legislative accomplishment Hollywood is obsessed with and high school civics teachers insist is the third rail of politics: “entitlement reform.”

It’s no accident most Americans haven’t heard much about a potential deal eliminating SGR and making changes to Medicare. A long-term bill is still in question, and final details are still being hammered out. But every day there isn’t an uprising on SGR is a day closer to a deal.

It looks increasingly likely lawmakers will agree to ditch the yearly fixes to the payment formula for Medicare doctors and pay for it — at least some of it — by making changes to private Medigap plans and by forcing wealthier seniors to pay more.

“In budget after budget, Republicans have offered real, structural reforms to strengthen the Medicare program for seniors,” Boehner said in a statement to CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. “This is an important opportunity to start getting some of those reforms enacted into law for the benefit of generations to come.”

Close Boehner-ally and fellow Ohio Republican Pat Tiberi told CQ Roll Call Boehner has always wanted to accomplish “big things.”

“This framework would certainly fall into that category,” Tiberi said. “Speaker Boehner has made entitlement reform a priority over the years because he knows it would have the largest impact on solving our long-term fiscal problems. If the framework of this deal is enacted, Speaker Boehner would and should consider it a major win for taxpayers.”

Yes, Boehner has long argued for an entitlement overhaul. He’s been talking about it since he came to Congress in 1991. And it was a major part of his campaign to be majority leader in 2006. And yet there really hasn’t been much movement on the issue since the ’90s, when Congress passed a welfare overhaul in 1996 and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. That’s how difficult the issue is.

Of course, the “fixes” being discussed now aren’t the most ambitious changes ever. But they are “changes” adjacent to the word “Medicare.” Sources close to the negotiations say most of the real savings would come from lowering income thresholds for aspects of Medicare that are already means-tested, such as prescriptions and doctor visits, or by increasing the percentage that these wealthier seniors have to pay for their premiums. Currently, means-testing on Medicare kicks in at $85,000 per year for individuals and $170,000 for couples.

Democrats in recent years have insisted any real changes to entitlements be coupled with tax hikes, but they’ve dropped that demand with SGR. And that could be a breakthrough for future negotiations.

Such negotiations aren’t likely to happen while Boehner is speaker. And, of course, this deal could fall apart. But GOP leadership is pushing the yet-to-be-released bill as a win for conservatives, particularly when the long-term savings are considered. Leadership acknowledges the deal would add to the deficit over the next ten years. But proponents say skeptics should look further out and measure the proposal’s long-term savings against the fact that Congress typically doesn’t pay for SGR anyway.

Democrats have stayed mostly silent on the negotiations. Boehner and Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) told the GOP Conference Tuesday they’d been working with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to jam the Senate into taking the House-passed bill.

That bipartisan angle may be part of the problem for conservatives, who would prefer Boehner try to pass legislation with all Republican votes before consulting Democrats.

“He was sitting down with Nancy first,” Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-KA), said of Boehner Tuesday, “and then he’s going to come back to conference and say, ‘Hey, we got the votes. I’m going to ram it through, and together, we’re going to jam the Senate.’

“No, it’s to jam the House Republican conservatives.”

Huelskamp predicted a majority of the GOP conference wouldn’t vote for the long-term deal. “But if he’s got Pelosi and her crowd, and he’s got 30 of the Tuesday group, he’s got her done,” he said.

Expect a lot more than 30 Republicans to vote for a deal. The doctor’s lobby has been all over Congress on this issue, hitting up Republicans and Democrats. And even some of the most conservative voices in the House see merit to a long-term deal.

“This is one that I’m going to take the leap of faith,” conservative Arizona Republican Paul Gosar told CQ Roll Call. “We got to do something.”

If Gosar is in, plenty more conservatives — not to mention rank and file — could join him.

“Democrats aren’t stupid,” Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler told CQ Roll Call in an email. “If they’re in on the deal, it is because it serves their long-term interests. Heck, a Democrat leadership aide is touting this as a ‘very big accomplishment’ for the minority!”

Holler went on to say that if Republicans wanted to vote for $130 billion in new deficit spending, that was their decision. “But they shouldn’t pretend they’ll be sneaking something by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid (D-NV), and Barack Obama,” he said.

Indeed, Democrats could be waiting until the bill is passed before sending out a round of self-congratulatory news releases. Most of these changes were included in President Barack Obama’s own budget. And even the changes that could affect less wealthy seniors, such as alterations to the supplemental coverage of Medigap, are pretty modest. Negotiators are discussing having seniors pay a deductible of less than $250 before their coverage kicks in. But the more significant changes — at least from a pay-for perspective — are the means-testing provisions.

With years before many of those changes ever take hold, Democrats could be paying for the so-called “doc fix” for free if they’re able to undo the modifications — or just delay them until Congress becomes accustomed to the idea of not doing it.

Sort of like what happened with SGR in the first place.

Boehner Survives, Conservatives Cope: Ongoing Saga Of The 114th Congress

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — It was an unconditional, unmitigated cave. In the battle to defund President Barack Obama’s immigration action, Democrats won. Republicans lost. So why does Speaker John A. Boehner’s job look as secure now as it did a month ago? And why aren’t conservatives more outraged?

“To be honest with you,” Rep. Paul Gosar told CQ Roll Call, “not all of it is his fault.”

The conservative Arizona Republican, who didn’t back Boehner for speaker in January’s election, said much of the frustration in GOP circles outside of Washington came because Republicans promised a fight on the Department of Homeland Security once the GOP controlled the Senate.

“Well where’s (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell? Where are our senator friends?” Gosar asked. “I mean, they took a bail on this one as well.”

Asked about Boehner’s overall performance, Gosar paused, then admitted he has questions. But he noted his staff is scheduled to meet with Boehner’s team to discuss a statutory tactic for blocking the executive action on immigration. “I want to send him a lifeline,” Gosar said. “If it works, who knows? We’ll see what happens.”

Conservatives aren’t exactly pleased with how leadership has handled the first two months of the 114th Congress. The sudden capitulation on the DHS fight — after months of tough talk — angered many on the right. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said he was “horribly disappointed, almost heartbroken” that Republicans gave in. Still, even the most conservative elements of the Republican Conference are surprisingly understanding of Boehner’s difficult job.

And with the DHS funding fight out of the way, Republicans — some of whom are suddenly attuned to the concept of “governing” — see an opportunity to get stuff done: a budget, Trade Promotion Authority, even changes to Obamacare.

Republicans just need everyone to forget January and February. Please.

Asked about the leadership team’s performance thus far, Rep. Randy Weber’s first reaction was laughter.

“On the record?” he inquired. The Texas Republican said he knew there had been “some unhappiness” with a lack of regular order. But, Weber said he understood Boehner’s position.

“He’s caught, you know, in a continuum of 247 Republican members — from the most conservative to the least conservative. So that’s a hard place to be,” he said.

Asked for his perspective on leadership’s performance at this point, Virginia’s Dave Brat was slightly more candid about his disappointment. “Well,” he said, after dramatically slumping his head and taking a short pause, “that’s up to you reporters to find out and answer one question.”

That question, according to the man who deposed former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary, was whether Republicans truly fought “tooth and nail” (as Boehner had promised) to block Obama’s executive action.

“I didn’t see any fight,” Brat said. “You report on it. Go see if you found the fight. See if you can find it.”

Brat said the only fight he saw was one in which an outside GOP group with Boehner ties — Barry Jackson, the speaker’s former chief of staff, is a senior board member for American Action Network — was running $400,000 worth of ads against conservatives such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio and Tea Party Caucus Chairman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.

That bit of news seemed to fire up conservatives almost as much as the DHS bill.

“Again the hypocrisy,” Raul R. Labrador told CQ Roll Call. “They complain about outside groups, but then they’re using outside groups to attack conservatives.”

The Idaho Republican claimed it was “a dangerous precedent” for moderate Republicans, “and I’m not sure they want to go down this road.”
Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon offered a similar warning: “There’s an old adage: When you play with fire, you get burned.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel distanced the speaker from the ads, noting the law forbids members from coordinating with outside groups. “But the speaker does not think these ads are helpful,” he said.

Tensions inside the conference were inevitable, given the bumpy first two months that saw leadership forced to pull bills dealing with abortion, border security and education from floor consideration.

Then came the DHS debacle. Still, Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise succeeded in averting a DHS shutdown.

South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy defended Team Boehner.

“What alternative did they have? There’s a reason very few people raise their hands and ask to be in leadership,” Gowdy said. “It’s much easier … to just second guess what other people do.”

Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer, who isn’t part of the most conservative wing of the GOP but has voted against leadership this Congress, said given it’s a diverse group, he’d give Boehner “pretty good marks.”

Even those in the conference who are clearly disappointed thus far are looking ahead.

Jordan told CQ Roll Call the HFC’s next focus would be on “doing a good budget.” Does that mean conservatives will forget the immigration action?

“No, we’re going to keep talking about it,” Jordan said. “We hope the court does the right thing. But (we’re) just disappointed in the U.S. Senate that they couldn’t — Democrats in the Senate — couldn’t go to conference.”

When CQ Roll Call pointed out it was Senate and House Republicans who ultimately gave in, Jordan refused to attack his own party. “Just remember,” he said, Senate Minority Leader “Harry Reid wouldn’t let the bill come up.”

But if blaming Reid isn’t enough for some on the right — if Republican leadership did cave — why aren’t conservatives more upset?

For one, the GOP surrender on DHS unfolded exactly the way most predicted. Even conservatives privately conceded the outcome. The only question for GOP leaders was whether a DHS shutdown would be the only thing to placate hard-liners. Boehner was unwilling to go that far, which may vex conservatives — but there’s little those Republicans, still seething from last year’s “cromnibus” fight that set up the DHS clash, can do.

Two months into a new Congress, Boehner isn’t going anywhere. And talk of efforts to steal his gavel is overblown.

Of course, there is chatter of a coup, members and aides told CQ Roll Call on background. But it’s not coming from — strictly speaking — GOP conservatives. It’s coming from members who believe the party would benefit from a shakeup. The only problem for those members is they’re counting on “troublemakers” such as members of the HFC to be the spark that ignites the proverbial powder keg — and, contrary to the belief of many Republicans, HFC members aren’t seriously discussing an effort to take down the speaker.

One HFC member told CQ Roll Call that holding a vote to vacate the chair would probably work in Boehner’s favor. Instead of undermining him, it would likely affirm that Boehner, and only Boehner — the man who has held the No. 1 spot in the conference since 2007 — can muster 218 votes for speaker.

Democrats would get to participate in such a vote, and conservatives know that, absent a deal with Democrats, Boehner isn’t going anywhere. If there were somehow a deal with Democrats, whoever could theoretically topple Boehner with the help of Democrats would be even less to the right wing’s liking.

Under the current dynamic in the House, there’s hardly any positive outcome for conservatives trying to embarrass Boehner. They are more likely to incur the wrath of a speaker many moderates believe has been too forgiving of dissension — embarrassing themselves instead.

(c) 2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Speaker John Boehner via Flickr

Republican Senators Pushing To Stop Filibusters, House Member Says

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House conservatives are increasingly pushing the Senate to “go nuclear” and change filibuster rules so a Homeland Security Department funding bill that would block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration can move forward. But according to a Republican House member, it’s not just the House pushing for that change.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said Friday that he had spoken to senators who support changing the filibuster rules.

“I’ve talked to senators who have expressed to Mitch McConnell that we need to protect the United States Constitution and we need to expand Harry Reid’s nuclear option to include must-pass legislation dealing with financing of the federal government,” Brooks said.

Brooks would not say exactly how many senators he’d talked to expressing that opinion, nor would be provide any names.

“McConnell has received the message from members of his own body, but again it’s going to come down to whether you’ve got 51 members of the United States Senate who are willing to put the Constitution first and foremost,” Brooks said.

Brooks doesn’t quite see the current debate over the Homeland Security bill as a problem of Democratic making. He said Republicans have the tools to override Democrats, who have stalled the bill in the Senate by repeatedly voting down a procedural motion to take up the legislation.

“We do not have 51 senators right now who have shown a willingness to place the United States Constitution above antiquated Senate filibuster rules,” he said.

Brooks was among the first Republicans to call on McConnell to stop the filibuster for appropriations bills, and he was joined in that call by conservatives Thursday.

But McConnell employing such a tactic still seems unlikely. Even Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggested Thursday that he didn’t support changing the rules.

“I think the Senate rules wisely protect the minority,” Cruz said. “The answer is not to change the Senate rules. The answer is for Senate Democrats not to be obstructionist.”

But either way, Brooks continues to believe pushing for a change in the Senate filibuster rules is the best move. When he was presented with some of the Senate Republicans opposed to that idea, Brooks noted that it only took 51 votes to change the rules.

“And they can be from either party,” he said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Boehner: Senate Democrats Need To ‘Get Off Their …’

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — GOP House leaders emerged from a Republican Conference meeting Wednesday with a persistent refrain on Department of Homeland Security funding: The House has done its job; it’s time for the Senate to act.

During their weekly Republican leadership press conference, Speaker John Boehner repeatedly called on the Senate to take up the House-passed DHS funding bill, which Senate Democrats have repeatedly blocked the chamber from considering.

“You know, in the gift shop out here, they’ve got these little booklets on how a bill becomes a law,” a fired-up Boehner said, as camera shutters clicked away. “The House has done its job! Why don’t you go ask the Senate Democrats when they’re going to get off their ass and do something?!”

When Boehner was asked if this standoff with the Senate was how he planned for the DHS bill to play out — Senate Republicans now insist it’s on House Republicans to send over a new bill — Boehner said the process was working “exactly” the way he envisioned it.

“The House did its job,” Boehner said. “We won the fight to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and to stop the president’s unconstitutional actions. Now it’s time for the Senate to do their work.”

But if they don’t, does Boehner ever intend on throwing the Senate a lifeline?

“The House has done its job,” Boehner said. “It’s time for the Senate to do theirs.”

Time and again, Republican members trickling out of the Wednesday morning conference meeting stubbornly repeated some variation of Boehner’s new favorite line: The House did its job, now it’s the Senate’s turn.

During conference Wednesday, members heard from two of their former House colleagues now in the Senate: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

But instead of Gardner and Moore Capito quelling the House insistence that the Senate act, the two freshmen senators got an earful that they weren’t doing enough.

According to Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, one member in the conference meeting told the senators they shouldn’t be letting the Senate go home on the weekend.

DeSantis said there were ways Republicans could pressure Senate Democrats — simultaneously noting he’s “not an expert on kind of how the Senate’s run” — and he said the sense among the public was that Senate Republicans weren’t doing enough.

In a mocking tone, DeSantis said the Senate’s attitude was, “‘OK, have a vote, OK, you don’t have 60, OK, we got to move on to something else now.'”

House members simply aren’t satisfied with the Senate’s effort on the House-passed DHS bill, which would block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. And House Republicans aren’t moving off their position that the Senate take up their bill. That insistence was typified Wednesday in one particularly iron-willed exchange between Budget Chairman Tom Price and a reporter.

“The speaker’s position, and our position, is that the House has already acted; it’s time for the Senate to act,” the Georgia Republican said Wednesday morning.

Asked if the more likely option then was for a continuing resolution or for a shutdown, Price said the option was for the Senate to act.

Presented with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments Tuesday that it was “obviously” up to the House to send over a new bill, Price was emphatic. “The House has acted,” he said, content to leave it at that.

But Rebecca Shabad, a reporter for The Hill, was not content to leave it at that. She asked if Price thought the House might have to act again. “It’s up to the Senate to act,” Price replied.

Asked again if a CR was more likely, given the short amount of time before a DHS shutdown on Feb. 28, Price resorted to a similar line. “The House has acted. It’s up to the Senate to act,” he said.

And that’s the official position from House Republicans: They’re not budging.

A similarly obstinate back-and-forth is playing out between Boehner and McConnell in the press. Boehner continues to insist the DHS funding bill is up to the Senate, while McConnell points to three failed votes to proceed to the legislation.

When Boehner was asked about the constantly evolving McConnell-Boehner relationship Wednesday, he didn’t say much.

“I love Mitch,” Boehner said. “He has a tough job to do, and so do I.”

And that was that.

Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) later issued the following statement on Boehner’s comments:

“We know Speaker Boehner is frustrated but cursing is not going to resolve the squabbling among Republicans that led to this impasse. Democrats have been clear from day one about the way out of this mess: take up the clean Homeland Security funding bill which Republicans signed off on in December – and which is ready to come to the Senate floor – pass it, and move on. If Republicans want to debate immigration policy next, Democrats are happy to have that debate.

“Neither Speaker Boehner nor Senator McConnell appears willing to do the right thing and stand up to the extremists in their caucus like Senator Ted Cruz who have led us here. As we speak, Senator McConnell is on the verge of wasting three entire weeks that could have been used to pass a clean Homeland Security bill simply because he is unwilling to stand up to Senator Cruz.

“The Republican Congress is a mess, pure and simple. Democrats are happy to help our Republican colleagues resolve their problems but the first step is for Republican leaders to do the right thing and pass a clean bill to fund Homeland Security.”

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

House Freedom Caucus Looks To Be A Force — In Leadership And Lawmaking

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House Freedom Caucus is only a few weeks old, but some members say the new conservative faction is already pulling the House Republican Conference to the right. Before the HFC convened a single meeting, it so complicated the GOP debate on a proposed border security bill that leadership eventually had to pull the measure from the floor.

But even more than a formalized “hell no” caucus that can thwart GOP leadership’s most moderate plans, the HFC could be a springboard for a new conservative leader — even if that’s not the group’s intention.

“I don’t look for any springboards,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio told CQ Roll Call last week. “I’m just trying to serve the families I get the privilege of representing — plain and simple.”

Jordan is one of the nine founding members of the organization and he could be the chairman of the HFC, though he said, “That’s for the group to decide.”

Asked to cut the “aw-shucks stuff,” Jordan replied, “But that’s me!”

“I’m not worried about raising my profile,” he continued. “I’m not worried about running for anything else. I don’t even know if I’m going to be the chairman of this organization.”

It’s true the HFC hasn’t chosen a leader — it might ultimately decide to not have a chairman — but in conversations with a number of HFC members, it seemed Jordan has the inside track if the group goes that route.

“I’d love to see Jim Jordan as speaker myself,” said one member, who went on to compare Jordan to George Washington.

“Jim doesn’t have that ego,” the member said. “He doesn’t need some power position to make his life one with the universe.”

Being chairman of a newly minted conservative group is a long, long way from being speaker. And even though Speaker John Boehner likes to tout that he was once a rabble-rousing outsider himself — when the Ohio Republican was a freshman in the early 1990s, he was part of the “gang of seven” that took on a number of business-as-usual scandals at the Capitol — he has also maintained strong ties to pro-business Republicans and the donors who come with those positions.

Jordan, meanwhile, spent a recent Monday afternoon at The Heritage Foundation, railing against the 114th Congress’ business-focused agenda and “crony capitalism.”

All the “Jordan as speaker” talk assumes a collection of the most disagreeable Republicans could actually coalesce behind one person — and draw in an even larger swath of the conference. Not impossible, but not exactly likely.

After two official meetings — the most recent, on Monday night, lasted almost two hours and went until nearly 9:30 p.m. — the HFC doesn’t have a chairman. As Jordan acknowledged, he might not even be the leader of the group. Some members pointed to Raul R. Labrador of Idaho as a possible choice.

But whoever the leader is, the HFC could be a real thorn in leadership’s side. The group is already claiming victory in what was shaping up to be an intraparty showdown over Texas Rep. Michael McCaul’s border security bill.

The bill was purportedly pulled because of the weather, but is conspicuously not on the schedule this week, with no commitment from leaders that the House will ever take it up.

It’s an early bit of obstructionist momentum that worries some mainstream Republicans, who fear the faction is less about imparting a conservative vision and more about preventing anything from getting done.

“They’re not legislators, they’re just a——-,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or p—– them off.”

The aide said the Republican Study Committee, a larger and more established collection of conservatives, had shown some willingness to work with leadership. “So the fact that the RSC can’t be the ‘no’ caucus, they have to create their own ‘no’ caucus.”

The aide said the HFC — a collection of “the craziest of the crazy” — was obviously a repudiation of the current RSC.

RSC Chairman Bill Flores of Texas disagrees: He said the new group is “complementary” to his group. But while there is nothing in the bylaws preventing a member from joining both, it’s clear some members won’t.

Labrador, for instance, is done with the RSC, while it looks like Jordan, a former RSC chairman, will remain a member.

But more than a criticism of the RSC, more than a springboard for the speakership, the House Freedom Caucus seems like it could have true influence inside and outside the GOP conference.

“It’s going to be a large bloc,” Justin Amash of Michigan told CQ Roll Call this week. “It is already a large bloc. And leadership is going to have to take it seriously, and understand that we expect the House to work in a way that is open and accountable.”

Labrador told C-SPAN Tuesday the group has 30 members on board already. He told CQ Roll Call the night before that those members will find a voice in the HFC.

“That’s the whole purpose of the organization,” Labrador said. “We have a lot of people here who feel they are not being heard.”

Members on Monday discussed the rules for the organization, which they still have not finalized. But the larger discussion was on the House-passed Department of Homeland Security funding bill currently before the Senate. “We spent two hours talking about what our response is going to be and what’s going to happen if the Senate fails to reach cloture,” Labrador said Monday night.

And what will that response be?

“Our position is going to be pretty simple,” Labrador said. “We passed a bill and we need the Senate to act.”

That means not caving on a clean DHS funding bill — one that doesn’t block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. Labrador said Tuesday morning he was open to a House and Senate conference on the bill. “Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell told the American people before the November elections that we needed to fight ‘tooth and nail,’ that we needed to stop the president and his illegal, unconstitutional actions — and I think if they fail to do that as leaders, they’re going to fail the American people.”

Exactly how the DHS funding bill plays out is unknown, but two things have never seemed in doubt: There won’t be a shutdown at DHS, and the president won’t sign a bill that blocks his immigration action.

Those two conditions don’t portend well for the HFC’s stance. But either way, members insist the group is really more about process, about fairness. “There should not be some congressmen who are more equal than others,” Mo Brooks (R-AL) told CQ Roll Call, summoning George Orwell to discuss the HFC’s principles.

Members understand that coming together on policy will be the biggest challenge. They see the HFC, however, as a step in the right direction.

“That’s been the conservative problem all along,” one member said. “It’s that the approach has always been really scattered. And it’s always been a day late and a dollar short.”

The member continued that he was hopeful the HFC could change a trend in conservative lawmaking: “Somebody comes up with a plan 24 hours ahead of time and everybody scrambles around, like, you know, can’t find their butts with both hands and a flashlight.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Biden To House Democrats: ‘Double Down’

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — As a House Democratic retreat obsessed with messaging on the middle class came to a close Friday, Vice President Joe Biden implored his congressional colleagues to not run from the White House’s economic record.

“Let’s resolve to double down,” Biden told House Democrats assembled in the Sheraton ballroom. “Let’s resolve to double down right now.”

He told Democrats they shouldn’t apologize for actions like the stimulus, the automotive industry bailout or the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which he called “probably the least popular vote we’ve had to take.”

Biden suggested that, while these programs might be unpopular, they were wildly successful. He said TARP ended up generating $15 billion in revenue; the auto bailout led to more than 20 million U.S. car sales in a year; and the stimulus stabilized an economy in free-fall.

Biden’s speech, however, wasn’t completely rose-colored.

He acknowledged at the start of his roughly 35-minute remarks that the economy under President Barack Obama had been difficult. “To state the obvious, the past six years have been really tough for this country,” he said, adding that it’s also been “really, really tough for our party.”

Still, he said things were turning around, that they had been turning around for quite some time, and he criticized Republicans for only now conceding that. “Now the Republican Party,” Biden scoffed, “it’s amazing: Now they’re trying to rewrite history.”

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent acknowledgment that the economy is showing hope, Biden said, “Mitch, it ain’t hope; it’s recovery.”

Biden said the economy is undergoing a “genuine resurgence.”

He told Democrats if they didn’t start defending the administration’s record on the bettering economy, Republicans were going to starting taking credit for it. “As Paul Ryan learned the word, it’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said of the suggestion that Republicans were responsible for the recovery.

But he warned Democrats that if they don’t speak up, if they don’t reassert the administration’s case, then Republicans are going to get through to voters. And he said Democrats shouldn’t be critical of the American people if they don’t give Democrats credit. “Because we’re not saying it,” he said.

“You got to embrace what we did, be proud of it, stand up,” he continued.

Biden’s speech, which received, as expected, a warm reception, was more specific in its defense of administration policies than President Barack Obama’s fiery speech the night before.

House Democrats spent the retreat repeating the words “middle class” — and then repeating them again and again — a fact Biden seemed to acknowledge, and perhaps even resent as a supposedly new message.

“Economic expansion occurs when you focus on the middle class,” Biden said. When Democrats interrupted Biden to applaud his “on-message” message, Biden interrupted the crowd. “No, for real,” Biden said. “For real, not a joke — I apologize for always talking about it for the last 20 years.”

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden during a roundtable discussion with students, college administrators and employers at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Conservatives Take Credit For Derailing Border Security Bill

By Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — With inclement weather grounding planes across the country Monday, GOP leaders pulled a border security bill from the floor schedule this week, citing the weather and an already condensed schedule.

One day later, though there are no blizzards conveniently scheduled for next week, Speaker John Boehner wasn’t about to commit to a timeline for resurrecting the border bill — a delay that some hard-line conservatives are already chalking up as a victory.

“We’re going to continue to talk to our members about these issues,” Boehner said following a Tuesday morning conference meeting. “When you look at it, it wasn’t the border bill itself. Frankly, it was issues that weren’t even in the committee’s jurisdiction.”

The Ohio Republican was asked when the House would vote on the contentious border bill, but that wasn’t the question he answered. “We’re going to have to walk through all of this with our members, and when we’re ready to move, we will,” he said.

Boehner acknowledged that leaders had already faced a couple of revolts in the early weeks of the 114th Congress. “Yeah, there have been a couple of stumbles,” he said, referring to an abortion bill leaders pulled last week and the border bill they pulled this week — but he said it was all in an effort to listen to the American people.

“It’s all about working with our members, listening to our members, and working through what are some very difficult issues,” he said.

But as Republicans continue to work through the issues on the border bill, and as many rank-and-file members maintain that pulling the border bill was a reflection of the weather cutting an already shortened week shorter, conservatives coming out of the GOP conference meeting Tuesday claimed they were the real storm that brought down the border bill.

“I know there were several people who raised concerns with us moving forward this fast,” Rep. Raul R. Labrador told CQ Roll Call.

Specifically, Labrador said conservatives were concerned that the Department of Homeland Security funding bill still hadn’t been taken up in the Senate, nor had a number of immigration proposals been heard in the House Judiciary Committee.

“It sounds like they’re going to wait on the Senate to work their will on the DHS funding bill, which is what we should have been doing all along,” Labrador said.

The Idaho Republican said some of the credit for holding up the border security bill belonged to the new group conservatives have been putting together for the last few weeks, the House Freedom Caucus.

The HFC held its first official meeting Monday night, and while the roughly 40-member pow-wow was supposed to be about bylaws, the meeting ended up largely being about immigration and the border security bill.

“We have 40 conservatives with 40 different ideas,” Labrador said, explaining the rationale for the new group. “And we’re less successful because we’re taking 40 different ideas to the leadership. It’s better to have 40 conservatives working together to take one idea to the leadership.”

Whether those 40 conservatives can actually coalesce around a single idea may prove difficult, but Labrador said they were already having an impact on the border measure. The bill has been dubbed by Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas as “the toughest border security bill ever,” but many conservatives believe it doesn’t do enough to enforce immigration laws.

Other conservatives, like Mo Brooks of Alabama, just want to see whether GOP leaders will fight President Barack Obama on his executive action on immigration. “Whether the House and Senate leadership will live up to those representations, only time will tell,” Brooks said.

Indeed, many House Republicans are waiting to see what the Senate can pass on the DHS funding bill. The House-passed bill blocked the executive action, but it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans could find enough — or any — Democratic votes to go along with such a plan. And it seems just as unlikely that Obama would sign a measure effectively blocking his immigration action.

Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Carter of Texas said he planned to meet with his Senate counterparts, “this week or next,” to see what they could accomplish.

“We’re going to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” Carter said. “I can guarantee you.”

But while Republicans wait on the Senate, the question remains whether McCaul’s border security bill will make it out of the House, which could portend further action on immigration.

According to House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY), the border security bill was “alive and kicking.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Boehner Suggests He Won’t Cave To Conservatives

By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As conservatives push back against a bill to fund the government past Dec. 11, Speaker John Boehner signaled Thursday that he didn’t expect to make any sizable changes to the bill in order to placate voices to the right.

“I expect that we’ll have bipartisan support to pass the omnibus,” Boehner told reporters Thursday, in response to a question on whether the Ohio Republican anticipated needing some Democratic votes to pass the bill, and whether that would give Democrats leverage on negotiating riders in the appropriations bill.

Conservatives are bashing the bill — which would fund all elements of government until October except the Department of Homeland Security, which would be funded until March or February — because it does not block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

Just before Boehner took the podium during his weekly press conference, Heritage Action, an influential outside conservative group, announced they would “key vote” against the bill unless it contained language to stop Obama’s “unlawful amnesty program.”

Boehner pledged to fight Obama’s executive action “tooth and nail.” Asked on Thursday just how sharp those teeth and nails are — if Republicans were really doing enough to stop the president — Boehner didn’t seem eager to give in to conservatives.

“We think this is the most practical way to fight the president’s action,” Boehner said. “And, frankly, we listened to our members. And we listened to some members who, frankly, were griping the most. This was their idea.”

While legislative language of the bill has not been released, members know the broad strokes. And Boehner suggested Thursday that there wouldn’t be major changes to the legislation that’s already been laid out to the GOP conference.

“I think we’ve laid out a reasonable course of action, suggested by our members,” Boehner said.

“Frankly, I’m pretty comfortable with where we are,” he added, seeming to refer to whether the House had the votes to pass such a plan.

GOP leadership contends Republicans will be in a better position to fight the president’s executive action come January, when Republicans take hold of the Senate. But it remains unclear just how Congress could stop the executive action without defunding the Department of Homeland Security.

Asked how Republicans might actually block the executive action, Boehner said there were “a lot of options on the table.

“And I’m not going to get into hypotheticals into what we could or couldn’t do,” Boehner said, “but I do know this: Come January, we’ll have a Republican House and a Republican Senate — and we’ll be in the stronger position to take actions.”

But Boehner also said there were “limited options in terms of how we can deal with this,” and many Republicans believe that by not blocking the president’s immigration action, Republicans are condoning it. And by giving in now, in December, it makes it less likely that Republicans will fight the action later, in February or March.

Still, leadership insists there are ways to punish the president for his immigration order. One such idea was to not invite Obama to give a State of the Union Address. Boehner, however, didn’t seem to like that idea.

“The more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes,” Boehner said. “Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?”

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

The Anti-Cantor: Dave Brat On Bringing Rationality To Washington

By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — It’s 7:49 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 21 — the first day of Congress’ Thanksgiving recess — and Dave Brat is 11 minutes early.

The man who unseated former Majority Leader Eric Cantor is meeting me at a Starbucks in Navy Yard before driving down to the Richmond suburbs for his first constituent town hall as a congressman. It’s part of a pledge he made to visit all nine counties in his district every month, and Brat has every intention of keeping his word.

He genuinely doesn’t seem to know exactly why or how he beat Cantor — “There’s no perfect interpretation on this, right?” — and he seems less interested in changing Washington than he is in making sure Washington doesn’t change him.

He orders a chocolate croissant, a Venti mocha latte for his campaign manager-turned-senior-adviser who’s also in attendance, and a Venti half-and-half mocha latte for himself. “Extra hot,” he tells the barista. Apparently, Dave Brat knows something about lattes we didn’t. He may be new to Congress, but he’s not new to Starbucks.

He pays $9.68 for the order, sits down in the quietest corner we can find, and begins telling — between bites of pastry — his life story.

“After the primary, when I got all the attention, people said, ‘Who’s Dave Brat?’ All these stories,” he says. “And so then I went around to all these business leaders and said, ‘Hey, I got a thing called a biography!’ You know, please check it out. The press, you know, they want to pigeonhole ya.”

Brat, 50, explains that he grew up in Alma, Mich.; went to high school in Minneapolis; graduated from Hope College; and then worked for the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in Detroit and Chicago before going to Princeton Seminary. “I was going to teach systematic theology, be a professor,” he says.

He speaks in the gravel-voiced tones of western Michigan, and in his frameless glasses, with his hair slicked back, he walks the line of looking like the proverbial Washington wonk and Congress’ version of Gordon Gekko.

But despite the outsider image cultivated in his campaign, Brat is no stranger to D.C. During his time at Princeton, he did a semester in Washington at Wesley Seminary and realized just how much economic policy drove “everything up here.”

He shifted his focus, received a doctorate in economics from American University, and then worked a few years in Washington — first at the World Bank and then for the Army before he took a teaching job 90 miles south at Randolph-Macon College.

He spent 19 years at the school, eventually becoming the college’s Economics Department chairman before deciding to use his experience in local politics to challenge Cantor. (Brat had previously served on a number of state advisory boards and had unsuccessfully run for a Virginia House seat.)

His congressional campaign is now the stuff of political legend. Cantor outspent him nearly 40 to 1, and yet Brat emerged on June 10 as the winner of the GOP primary by 12 points. It was the first time a sitting majority leader had lost in a primary since the position was created in 1899.

He went on to beat Democrat Jack Trammell in the general election by 24 points.
Now that he’s sworn in, Brat walks around the Capitol like a mini-celebrity. Members of Congress flock to him on the House floor to introduce themselves. Members of the press swarm him in the halls to give him their cards. And his constituents flood his email him with messages that say, “Keep being Dave.”

“There’s been outpouring, yeah,” Brat says, almost surprised to hear that not all members of Congress are greeted with a Roman triumph.

“I don’t know what’s normal,” he says. “Everybody’s been totally gracious.”

When asked who specifically has tried to befriend him, he mentions Bill Huizenga — the Republican who represents a part of Michigan where Brat still has family — and conservative MIT-graduate Thomas Massie of Kentucky. He also enumerates fellow GOP members of the Virginia delegation Reps. Robert W. Goodlatte, Morgan Griffith, and J. Randy Forbes.
Even GOP leadership has been nice to him. “Boehner’s got just a tremendous personality,” he says of House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Asked what it’s like to be “the-guy-who-knocked-off-Cantor,” Brat says he doesn’t view it that way — and he wants to look forward, not backwards. “That’s all in the rearview mirror,” he says.

While immigration was seen as the central issue in Brat’s campaign, and thus the key reason he beat Cantor, Brat thinks his success was more about fiscal issues, actually.

“I think that was the central message, that the economics is broken,” he says. “And then immigration also fits in there, right? So when your labor markets are already broken, it seems to me the answer isn’t to import, you know, 10 million new people.”

On the morning after President Barack Obama’s immigration announcement, Brat calls the executive action “the height of cynicism.” But he stops short of calling it unconstitutional. When asked about impeachment, Brat says he’ll go through the executive order in “slow motion” with “the smartest lawyers in the room and navigate that.

“And then, based on my principles, nobody gets to violate the Constitution,” he says. “If, in fact, anyone has violated the Constitution, yeah, then we have serious, serious issues to deal with.”

And that’s how Dave Brat wants to deal with issues: slowly, methodically, like a rational economist.

AFP Photo/Jay Paul

New House GOP Rules Impact Medals, Gavels — And Paul Ryan?

By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Behind the closed doors of the Cannon Caucus Room, House Republicans voted Friday on conference rules changes for the 114th Congress, approving a proposal forcing committee chairmen running for other offices to hand over their gavel but voting down a proposal to reinstate a limited form of earmarks.

Overall, Republicans voted on nine amendments to their conference rules and approved two: a proposal from Tom Cole (R-OK) that would force chairmen — of committees, of subcommittees, ad hoc committees or joint committees — to step down if they run for another office, and a proposal from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) that would allow for more than two Congressional Gold Medals per year to be handed out.

Cole’s amendment may seem like a shot at Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, but Cole told reporters that his amendment would allow waivers from the Steering Committee. In fact, Cole said he explicitly mentioned Ryan’s name as someone who could get a waiver when he was explaining his proposal.

After the vote, Cole told CQ Roll Call that Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, would be the “perfect example” of someone who could get a waiver.

“None of us would have wanted to remove him from his committee chairmanship,” Cole said, though he noted that when he originally wrote the amendment, it didn’t have the waiver exemption.

“That was pointed out to me actually in discussions with the speaker’s office, and I said, ‘You know, that’s a good point,’ ” Cole said. “I just want the presumption being that if you’re running for something else, that you give up your gavel.”

Still, if Ryan, as expected, gets the Ways and Means chairmanship, and then decides to seek the presidency, the change will introduce another step for Ryan to retain his gavel.

Whether that extra step would actually factor into a decision to run for the White House remains to be seen. In many ways, the rule change could offer the Wisconsin Republican a satisfying response to those members who believe it’d be unfair to give Ryan the Ways and Means gavel if he ultimately plans to abandon the post.

Both Cole’s amendment and McCarthy’s, which would also establish some new criteria for Congressional Gold Medals, were adopted on voice vote.

The big rules change fight, however — and the only proposal to be voted on with a secret ballot — was a Mike D. Rogers (R-AL) amendment that would have reinstated earmarks for states, local governments, or a “public utility or other public entity.”

Rogers argued the Republican House would be better at doling out earmarks than the president. Under current House rules, appropriations bills can include specific line-item spending projects as long as the president includes it in his budget. That has given the administration plenty too much spending influence, Rogers said.

“I do not believe most people trust how President Obama spends our tax dollars,” Rogers said in a statement after the vote. “This proposal would allow the conservative, Republican-controlled House to reassert its Constitutional authority over the Obama Administration and the spending decisions it is currently making.”

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) has been enemy No. 1 of congressional earmarks. He has long advocated against them, and he successfully pushed for their outright ban when he became speaker in the 112th Congress. Earlier this year, Boehner pledged at a news conference that, “As long as I’m speaker, there will be no earmarks.”

According to a GOP aide with knowledge of the vote, the proposal went down “handily.”

Members also voted down:

A proposal from Texas Republican Louie Gohmert that would have given all 31 members of the Republican Steering Committee one vote. Currently, the speaker gets five votes and the majority leader gets two.

A requirement from Florida Republican Ron DeSantis that would have made all GOP staff members subject to the Obamacare exchanges.

A proposal from Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble to establish an overarching Committee on Health Care.

Ohio Republican Steve Stivers’ call to require full committee chairmen to bring their nominations for subcommittee chairmen to the Steering Committee for approval. Members also voted down another Stivers amendment that would have made all committee slots open every Congress.

Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman’s proposal to limit chairmen to three terms — at the end of which those members would not be allowed to serve as chairman or ranking member of a different committee. (The proposal had a grandfather clause for current chairmen.)

Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield withdrew an amendment that would have put an Energy and Commerce Committee member on the Budget Committee.

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

The Boehner-McConnell Relationship: Mutual Respect, Low Drama

By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — John A. Boehner and Mitch McConnell have never been best friends.

But they aren’t enemies, either. Far from it, say staffers and sources who know both lawmakers. The speaker and the Senate’s presumptive new majority leader have built, over the years, a solid professional relationship based on a sturdy sense of mutual respect.

That relationship is in the spotlight now more than ever, with Republicans emboldened in the wake of Tuesday’s wave election that saw the GOP pick up at least eight seats in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House.

Sources told CQ Roll Call that Boehner and McConnell don’t have to be close personally to get things done.

“While they’ve never played horseshoes on the speaker’s lawn, they spend a lot of time together, speak regularly and have demonstrated an unprecedented working relationship between the leaders of the House and Senate,” Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, told CQ Roll Call.

Their staffs also report that Boehner and McConnell meet almost every week the House and Senate are in session, unofficially alternating whose office they meet in. (Aides note their relationship isn’t so rigid that they have to ensure office meeting parity.)

Aides also acknowledge that while they have slightly different styles, they’re on the same page when it comes to substance. A former senior GOP aide familiar with both McConnell and Boehner said they are “two adults in a room that is usually lacking in adults.”

Both are establishment Republicans with pro-business, anti-drama leanings.

Their Capitol offices are separated by a short stroll across the Rotunda, just as their states are separated by the Ohio River. Boehner’s Cincinnati-suburbs district is about 20 miles north of Kentucky — a fact President Barack Obama has occasionally tried to use as leverage against the GOP leaders, dinging them for their opposition to a jobs bill in 2011 that could have provided money to improve the Brent Spence Bridge.

But even though there’s history to the Boehner-McConnell relationship, Tuesday’s elections inevitably alter the dynamic — and raise the stakes enormously for both men.

McConnell has spent much of the past four years bailing Boehner and his Republican Conference out of jams. (Remember the fiscal cliff?) But now, McConnell may need Boehner to return the favor.

While Republican gains in the Senate were greater than many expected, McConnell’s majority is still thin — too thin to beat a Democratic filibuster — and the 2016 elections already loom over McConnell’s delicate majority.

Boehner, on the other hand, has the largest GOP House majority since March of 1929. Finally, he will have the legislative room to ignore some of the untamed conservatives in his own conference without having to beg Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for votes.

Of course, what the House sends the Senate will have to take into account the fragile– and possibly fleeting– Republican majority in the upper chamber. With 24 Republican senators (and only 10 Democrats) facing voters again in two years, Boehner and the House have to be conscious of the votes they force on the vulnerable GOP majority.

That’s where the relationship will be tested. That’s where communication will be key.

But those who know Boehner and McConnell well don’t anticipate problems.

One of Boehner’s most frequent dinner companions, Sen. Richard M. Burr, (R-NC), told CQ Roll Call this week that Boehner and McConnell have worked together “religiously” for years.

And while it may seem like Burr would be a natural intermediary for Boehner and McConnell, he doesn’t think that’ll be necessary.

“I don’t think they need a go-between,” Burr said.

Of those potential, but perhaps unnecessary, go-betweens, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky would also seem like a natural fit.

But in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call, Rogers said that while he was “very hopeful and anxious that Mitch take over the majority leader’s slot,” he wants to see a renewed focus on passing and conferencing appropriations bills “the old-fashioned way.”

He’s more interested in restoring the appropriations process than in serving as an intercessor between the speaker and McConnell.

As Burr said of the legislative relationship between the leaders, “Nobody needs to be involved in that other than the two leaders and their staffs.”

Burr looked at the Republican majorities in both chambers as opportunities for Boehner and McConnell to govern. And while he agreed the House would have to be mindful of what it sends to the Senate, he thought it was more important that Republicans produce legislative results — specifically mentioning a tax overhaul, a repeal of the medical devices tax and legislation forcing the implementation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“We have two years for Republicans in Congress to prove to Americans that they can govern,” he said.

The day after the election, Boehner and McConnell were already trying to present a united front, co-authoring a Wall Street Journal op-ed that laid out the contours of a preliminary agenda in the 114th.

“The skeptics say nothing will be accomplished in the next two years. As elected servants of the people, we will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong,” they wrote.

Of course, Obama still occupies the White House. And anything passed by the House and Senate will still need the president’s signature.

While that prevents Congress from achieving conservative fantasies such as repealing Obamacare, it leaves plenty of smaller items on the margins that Republicans can pressure Democrats and the president with — all the while drawing stark contrasts in advance of the perpetual next election.

Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr

Another Boehner Coup Attempt Expected, Despite Long Odds

By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner is on a stronger footing with the House Republican rank and file than he has been in years. But when the new Congress convenes in January, that won’t stop the party’s anti-Boehner wing from staging another revolt.

Lawmakers and aides say Boehner has improved his position in the GOP conference since the start of 2013, when 12 Republicans surprised the Ohio Republican on the floor by refusing to vote for him as speaker.That 2013 coup attempt went nowhere, but the anti-Boehner effort in the new 114th Congress is counting on reinforcements.

At least five conservatives likely to win in November already say they’re apt to support someone else for speaker. Several current members — Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas — openly admit they won’t support Boehner. And even members who support the speaker acknowledge that he will face opposition.

Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman said he will vote for Boehner come January, but that there could be 20 to 50 Republicans voting against Boehner.

“It’s interesting, you know, some of the people that have approached me,” Stutzman said. “(I was) surprised that they were in that camp. It’s not your typical, traditional folks you would think.”

Stutzman’s office said his number is simply speculation.And even if there are enough votes to initially keep the speaker’s gavel from Boehner’s hand,there is no challenger yet to the man who has reigned atop the Republican Conference for nearly nine years.

“I think it’s hard to beat somebody with nobody,” Stutzman said.

Several members involved in the last effort to dethrone Boehner said the ultimate failing of the insurrection was not presenting members with a clear alternative. And with former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gone, a Boehner successor is even less apparent.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin could put together a viable candidacy, but has shown no indication that he will. And House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling has toyed with the idea. But his support in the conference might be overstated, and the Texas Republican seems to sense that now is not the time.

Hensarling’s communications director, Sarah Rozier, said her boss “doesn’t find speculative conversations about leadership elections to be a productive exercise,” and that he “intends to support the speaker candidate that receives the support of the Republican Conference.”

“And at this point he expects that person will be John Boehner,” she said.

In other words, Hensarling vs. Boehner is a long shot.

“I just don’t see it,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said of a Hensarling challenge. “That doesn’t mean he won’t run for speaker at some point. But again: Jeb plays by the rules. And if you’re going to run for speaker, it’s awfully late to mount that.”

Cole didn’t see anyone posing a legitimate challenge — “Boehner is safer than all the gold in Fort Knox”– and he thought the opposition from the congressional newcomers was exaggerated. There is a lot of pressure, he said, on new members to not “go out there on your very first vote and embarrass yourself.”

Cole said there’s already an effort underway from state party officials and national Republican figures to rein in the newcomers.

And that’s what many of the would-be Republican rebels seem to miss. As much chatter as there is about a coup, Boehner allies have their own plans for gumming up any plots against the speaker.

One senior aide said that even if Boehner doesn’t secure the votes on an initial ballot, there’s no guarantee Republicans would, as opponents expect, halt the inaugural festivities and hold a special conference meeting. Conservatives have long believed that if they could deny Boehner a first-ballot victory, the conference would be thrown into chaos and a legitimate challenger would emerge.

Instead, leadership could simply hold the vote open, twist arms, and maybe even hold another vote immediately after the first. Or hold many successive votes, until someone caves.

The point is: Boehner and his allies control the process. Even if his opponents could prevent him from becoming speaker on a first ballot — something that hasn’t happened since 1923 — the situation is unlikely to go down as the conservative rabble-rousers envision.

There has also been discussion of punishing anyone bucking the party line, first reported in May by Politico, and expanded upon recently by National Journal. But a senior Republican leadership aide said the idea of stripping rebels of their committee assignments is “not currently under consideration.”

As long as Republicans manage to navigate the lame duck session, it seems Boehner’s speakership isn’t in any real danger.

Of course, the session will be tricky, as Congress battles over whether — and when — to debate and vote on authorizing military force in Iraq and Syria. Boehner is presented with choices that are certain to anger at least somebody. And Congress still has an omnibus spending bill to address by Dec. 11.

And then there are the Republican conspiracy theorists who believe Boehner has been waiting for the lame duck session to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.

“If he pushes an immigration bill, it’d probably create more opposition than anything else he could do,” Jones said.

Jones, who swears he won’t support Boehner come January, has been meeting with a small group of conservatives — about seven — looking to oust the speaker. But he insists that opposition to Boehner extends much deeper into the conference.

Jones said he thought there were other groups talking. It’s just that those groups don’t appear to be talking with each other.

Short of a sudden and dramatic change of opinion, Boehner appears confident. He’s already sharing plans for the 114th Congress, talking about making a tax overhaul a priority, a highway bill and the possibility of an immigration rewrite.

He spent much of the 113th Congress repairing relationships in the party conference. He emerged from the shutdown stronger in the eyes of conservatives. And even though — as Democrats are quick to point out — the House was unable to accomplish much, leaders worked through issues and produced legislation that eventually won the support of many of Boehner’s biggest detractors, such as the farm bill and, more recently, the border security measure.

Furthermore, much of the conference seems content with the new leadership ushered in after Cantor’s surprise defeat in June, and many think Boehner is the steady Republican hand needed at the top.

Of course, there are still elections on Nov. 4. And Republicans could re-evaluate their leadership choices if they don’t win the Senate, or, more damningly, lose seats in the House.

But Boehner’s hold over the conference could just as well be cemented by the elections.

Should Republicans gain House seats and take majority control of the Senate, dissidents may balk at the idea of angering someone who is almost certain to be speaker again.

As Jones said, taking down a sitting speaker on the House floor would take members who are committed — “and I don’t know if they’re there or not.”

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson