Are People Being Unfair to the House Republicans?

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From the ill-fated "Plan B" to hurricane relief, John Boehner and the House GOP have had a bad run. A former congressman attempts to justify their actions.

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It's open season on the House Republicans these days, and the incoming fire isn't just coming from the left. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, blasted House Speaker John Boehner for delaying a vote on Hurricane Sandy relief; the conservative commentator John Podhoretz accused right-wing members of Congress of "literally embracing chaos" with their ill-fated attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership on Thursday.

Even within the GOP, it seems, the House GOP's actions of late seem beyond the pale. So I set out to find someone to defend them. I called former Rep. Steve LaTourette, an outspoken ally of Boehner's whose resignation from his Cleveland-area seat after 18 years took effect a few days ago, to get his explanation of the method behind the recent madness. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: The impression, particularly among Democrats, is that the Republican majority in the House is a bunch of crazies determined to do everything in their power to stand in the way of functional government. Is that wrong?

Former Rep. Steve LaTourette: It's wrong because the whole conference isn't crazy. The majority are trying to get the right thing done. But if you do the math and you need 218 out of 233 [to pass a bill], you don't need many people to leave the reservation to have a nonfunctioning majority. It's reasonable to say that within the group are some extremists.

Q: You're a defender of Boehner, not the insurgents who've rebelled against him. But his strategy in recent weeks has also been difficult to fathom -- first pulling out of negotiations with Obama in favor of the so-called "Plan B," then pulling the Plan B bill when he couldn't round up the votes, then handing over the fiscal-cliff talks to the Senate, then nearly derailing the deal that passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Walk me through the thinking behind these moves.

LaTourette: Plan A [negotiating with Obama] was not going to work, so we had to come up with a Plan B. What we were faced with was that taxes were going to go up on every American. The objective was twofold: One, if the $1 million threshold was accepted, it would have saved 99 percent of the American public from a tax increase. Boehner laid out two irrefutable facts: One, the president was reelected, and two, he campaigned on raising taxes, so they're going to go up on somebody, and if you don't like taxes, you have to save as many people as possible. The second purpose was that it would have given Boehner something to take to the president and the Senate and say, 'Let's talk turkey. Here's where we are.'

When that failed, he told the other Republicans, 'You are sending me to the White House naked, to the Senate naked. You've given me nothing as leverage to negotiate with these people.'

[When the Senate started negotiating,] We didn't know Biden would be coming in, but with Mitch McConnell's reputation as a deal-maker, we knew senators would run for cover, and they did. We knew we were going to get back something that didn't look good. Then the only choice was to put the Senate bill on the floor. They all got the chance to vote 'no,' but the Senate had gone home. There were two choices: Do we shoot the hostage and let taxes go up on every American, or vote for a tax increase and live to fight another day?

Q: The deal did pass the House in the end, though the majority of Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, didn't support it. But then Boehner decided not to hold a vote on the bill to fund relief money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. What happened there?

LaTourette: The Sandy thing could have been handled better. But Boehner had expended so much political capital on the tax bill, and now these same 20 to 60 people were grousing that [the aid money] was unpaid for. You look at the roll call on the tax bill -- Boehner votes yes, and every other [member of the GOP leadership] except Cathy McMorris Rodgers voted no.

During the roll call on the tax bill, I walked into the cloakroom, and Boehner was sitting there. I said, 'This Sandy thing is really important. We've got to do something.' He said, 'Not tonight.' I asked if we were going to do it tomorrow, and he said no. He said, 'After this mess, I just can't do it tonight.'

Q: I don't understand. Was he just exhausted? Was he afraid the votes wouldn't be there?

LaTourette: He had expended a lot of political capital to get the 85 votes [on the fiscal-cliff deal], and he felt a little betrayed that the other members of the elected leadership walked on him. And the last piece was, as you saw during the Speaker election [Thursday], this sort of insurrection was forming against him. There was a fear that if he put $60 billion, no matter how worthy, of unpaid-for emergency spending on the floor, the insurrection would become bigger than it was.

Q: How about that insurrection -- doesn't that prove that Boehner is a weak leader who can't control his caucus?

LaTourette: I think it's ridiculous. They should kick them all out of the Republican conference. The picture in Politico of a sitting Republican member of Congress on the floor with an iPad showing a screen with a whip count to deny the Republicans the speakership of the House is asinine. This is what I'm talking about: These guys are OK when it comes to ideology and dogma, but they don't have a clue how to participate in the legislative process.

I don't know what their objective is. If it was to deny the speakership to Boehner and hand it to Mrs. Pelosi, I don't know how their cause would have been furthered. If it's to force the vote to a second ballot to make some demands, well, who the hell do these people think they are? Twelve out of 233, and they're making demands? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

Q: Is there any way for Boehner to assert some leadership now that he's been reelected and bring the insurgents into line?

LaTourette: He resisted, the entire last Congress, until the very end, the temptation to punish anybody. I sat on the steering committee, and there were cries from all parts of the conference: 'These guys are ruining everything!' He wouldn't chastise them or do anything until the recent mini-purge.

I don't think his inclination is to punish people. But I have to tell you, I don't know how he does it. You look at the very beginning of the last Congress, H.R. 1, the omnibus, there were hundreds of amendments from the stupid to the sublime. One was offered to defund the president's teleprompter. Another was to defund the electrical upgrades needed to bring the White House up to code. But Boehner's deal was, OK, go for it, let people participate. There was an expectation that, given the opportunity to improve the bill, they would then vote for the bill. But beginning with that bill there have been 20 to 50 members who will make adjustments to the bill that guarantee you're not going to get one Democrat to vote for it, and then they still vote against the bill themselves and deny Boehner the 218 votes he needs to bargain with.

Q: Are the insurgents motivated by ideology?

LaTourette: I'm sure they have a certain ideology, but if the purpose of the place is to govern -- if your ideology is you don't believe in governing, I can't say anything to that. But if you want a smaller, more responsible government, you have to go for the achievable. Or you can say 'no' all you want, but then you can't squawk if leadership has to go across the hall to get Democrats to vote for it.

Q: What do you think the future holds for the House Republicans?

LaTourette: It's a mess. I'm an optimist -- I do hope that when they go down to their retreat these guys take it seriously when Boehner says, 'Listen, we've got to get to 218 votes.' These people have to be willing to sit down and find a bill that gets 218 Republican votes. But I really don't see it coming. I don't.

Boehner can't be a leader if he doesn't have guys behind him to lead. But I do know that he thinks this deficit and debt problem is just going to eat up the country. If anybody would meet him halfway or even a little less than halfway in the White House or the Senate, he would put his speakership at risk to make the big deal.

Q: But didn't Boehner recently say he would no longer negotiate with Obama?

LaTourette: Yeah, that looks bad. He clarified that to us. He said if the president called him up and said, 'Let's talk,' of course he'll talk to him -- it's the president of the United States, you'd talk to him anytime, anywhere. But he feels, and I happen to agree with him, that he's already put everything on the line, and that the president is unwilling to challenge his own party on spending. Until the president changes his position, it's a waste of time.

Q: How about you? You recently resigned from Congress after nine terms.

LaTourette: I'll go back and find something productive to do with my life. As opposed to the last 18 years.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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