Amid Calls for Revenge, Boehner Stays Above the Fray

The speaker plays statesman while his allies level threats against his critics.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks during a ceremony to posthumously present the Congressional Gold Medal for to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, July 9, 2014. (National Journal)

As those close to John Boehner seek retribution against the rebels who crossed him, the speaker himself is backing away, choosing instead to play the statesman—under pressure to be vindictive but more likely to succeed by being merciful.

The fact that retribution has been slow to come, and indeed may not amount to much at all, neatly illustrates the leadership style of the man described by some colleagues as too nice, too cool under pressure, and willing to shake off a stinging defeat and greet the next morning with a smile.

But it also points to a truth that with the Republican Conference he leads, Boehner has limited tools available to him, and retribution serves a limited purpose. It may be better, said some Republicans, for him to seem firm but above the fray, letting his allies do the dirty work while he projects a mature and conciliatory tone.

"One, it's partly Boehner's style, and two, it's that he's being shrewd enough to recognize that while some people call for public execution, that's not effective," said a former senior GOP leadership aide. "There are limits to how much you can hurt some of those people who don't want to play by the rules anyway."

Boehner himself said that he has struggled at times with the heaps of criticism he has gotten from the right, especially since he sees himself chiefly as an antiestablishment agitator who has combated earmarks and tried to bring regular order to an institution long marred by corruption and back-slapping giveaways.

"It does pain me to be described as spineless or a squish," he told reporters Thursday morning. But, he added, "I'm pretty comfortable in my own skin, and I'm going to do my best to show all of our members—Democrats and Republicans and those members who voted against me—that I'm up to the job I was given."

That attitude has endeared him to even his detractors. "He is a man of integrity and I would be surprised if he put forth retribution," said one member who voted against Boehner on the House floor but asked not to be named in order to speak more frankly.

Yet it frustrates members of his inner circle, like Rep. Devin Nunes, who have been calling for leadership to punish the 25 Republican lawmakers who turned their back on Boehner on the House floor in an embarrassing public display of disunity on Tuesday.

"He's just a nice guy, he's too nice. There's a reason he's speaker and I'm not," Nunes said.

"He's a very generous man," added Rep. Tom Cole, another Boehner ally.

Cole knows both sides of the Boehner coin. When he was National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, he and Boehner, then minority leader, butted heads. Cole spent some time in the wilderness, but his plum Appropriations subcommittee chairmanship and seat at a regular Team Boehner lunch show the lengths to which Boehner will go to keep the past in the past.

Those close to Boehner say his forgiving attitude was forged in part by his own time in the wilderness after, as Republican Conference chairman, he took the public fall for the failures of the mid-1990s Republican revolution. His seemingly meteoric rise was cut short, only to rematerialize as he patiently clawed back into power through the committee process—learning along the way how to cut deals with foes of all kinds.

A more recent example helps illuminate why many of those who crossed the speaker earlier this week are not on the chopping block. In 2012, leaders purged rebellious members from key committees. Rather than reining those members in, the move bred the most lasting foes Boehner faces in his own caucus.

Rep. Walter Jones helped engineer the failed coup this year, drafting Rep. Daniel Webster to run an eleventh-hour campaign to depose Boehner. Reps. Tim Huelskamp and Justin Amash still routinely vote against leaderships' priorities, and Amash in particular is unburdened after besting an establishment primary challenge last year.

Overtly punishing the members who voted against Boehner this year, and who have said they did so as a matter of conscience, could simply create more freelancers when leadership is pushing for unity.

"There's always things you can do, but I mean, I'm still going to be here," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, another candidate who ran against Boehner. "They can take away my committees and I'll have more time to fuss about bills, so that's up to them."

Webster's may end up being the only sustained punishment. He and Rep. Richard Nugent, who voted for him, were stripped of their seats on the Rules Committee immediately following the contentious vote. After a private heart-to-heart with Boehner Wednesday evening, however, Nugent may reclaim his seat.

Still, there are other ways punishment can manifest itself, and at least some of those who voted against Boehner are on edge, wondering whether the payback could come down the road and in subtle ways.

The speaker controls things both seemingly trivial and important around the Capitol. Boehner has his hands in all manners of requests, from office space in and around the complex to attendance on congressional delegation trips to sponsorships of amendments to fundraising money.

"It can be done to you and you never know, and they know you don't know," said Rep. John Fleming, who voted for Boehner but often votes out of step with leadership. "It's kind of one of those things where you kind of don't know when you get the shock, so you better stay away from the radio or from the power plug. That way you'll never get shocked."