Are People Being Unfair to the House Republicans?

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.

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

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