The Road Ahead

By Laura Blessing and Josh Huder, Senior Fellows

Speaker John Boehner finally succumbed to the four-year pressure campaign waged by House conservatives. As politically weak as Boehner was in his conference, the institutional powers of the Speaker meant that he was never going to be forced out of his position. He’s powerful enough that he could leave on his own terms. On Friday, he did just that. The question now is, where does that leave a divided and unwieldy House majority?

Over the next month this potentially untethers Speaker Boehner from the hard right. A short-term continuing resolution (CR) will pass by next month and potentially set the stage for a debt ceiling deal, a larger budget agreement, the Highway Trust Fund bill, and other priorities currently stuck in limbo. In short, Boehner is free to do what he has done for the last five years: enable Republicans to get out of their own way on what should be easily passed bills. Boehner has moved his conference around problems that truly threatened the Republican brand and fundraising from the Doc-Fix, the Violence Against Women Act, trade promotion authority, to the debt ceiling and his handling of the shutdown in 2013. In his last month, that will likely remain his focus. This time, however, he likely won’t feel tied to demands from the right that could endanger these deals or the party.

It will be interesting to see what he prioritizes during his remaining time.  Some may advocate that he address the debt ceiling, given the dire consequences of default.  While Treasury estimates that borrowing capacity will go slightly beyond the end of October (CBO estimates mid-November to December), there is no guarantee that this will be taken up, especially considering that these estimates are often a worst case scenario. While fiscal bills dominate the agenda, there is also the possibility that Boehner could bring up other bills.  There will be significant clamor for an immigration bill, given that last Congress the Senate’s bill could have passed the House if the Speaker had brought it up.  But the politics in the Senate have since shifted.  More votes would be needed given the shift to a Republican Senate majority, and even the Gang of Eight’s positions have changed.  What cannot be seen is whether the Speaker will achieve more than merely a clean CR until mid-December by vacating his chair.

Once he leaves Republican politics become trickier. Conservatives waged this rebellion, finally succeeding after nearly three years. They will want a successor with proven conservatism or at least assurances their demands will gain more traction in legislative process.  The House hasn’t seen a significant conflict over the Speakership since 1923, when progressive Republicans garnered liberalizing rules changes in exchange for their Speakership votes after days of failed ballots.  What will the Freedom Caucus demand?

In this scenario more distant obstacles may become even more difficult. Critical legislation such as the December continuing resolution and the debt ceiling may become the battlefield in which newly emboldened conservatives will challenge the rest of the party to follow their lead. However, the structural features of government that have prevented conservatives from winning many of their fights remain in place. The President will still veto any legislation that defunds Planned Parenthood, undermines Obamacare, or undermines non-defense programs.  Conservatives won the battle they’ve been fighting for years. However, it’s unclear they’ve furthered their cause in the bigger war.