For weeks, the House was legislatively paralyzed as conservatives battled the Republican establishment over the future of the party. This week, the House became unstuck, and yet almost no long-term work is finished and almost no one was left happy with the results.
Speaker John Boehner’s last week in office saw a bizarre flurry of legislative activity on long-stalled issues: A renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter passed over the objections of the Financial Services Committee chairman, a bipartisan deal increasing the budget passed over the objections of the Budget Committee chairman, and a party leader was pushed into the speakership over his own objections, not to mention the objections of scores of hard-line Republicans.
And yet, none of this resolved the underlying debates that have split the party, but rather just put them off. And, paradoxically, the main reason any of it moved was because Boehner was on the cusp of resigning, essentially pushed out by the same forces he pushed out of the way to cut his final deal, a two-year budget agreement that passed the House Wednesday without a majority of Republicans.
Conservatives may have claimed his head, but the body let out a last kick.
“Well, the barn’s clean, isn’t it?” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a House Freedom Caucus member, paraphrasing Boehner’s description of his desire to clean house before leaving. “John goes out the same way he was when I got here, which is violating the Hastert Rule and spending more money.”
Republican centrists, of course, see it much differently. Long frustrated by the stymied legislative process, they believe conservatives boxed themselves in, making demands for budget cuts and phasing out the Export-Import Bank that could not ultimately hold.
“I would say it was a good week for those of us who want to govern and a tough week for those who don’t,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a leader in the centrist Tuesday Group.
Dent said Boehner’s exit was the only reason he and his colleagues moved on a discharge petition, an extremely rare legislative maneuver that allowed members to wrestle the Ex-Im Bank from Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s jurisdiction and put it on the House floor for a vote.
“This has been a very unusual time, no question about it. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t do a discharge petition, but we got a hall pass,” Dent said. “When the speaker decided he was going to leave, that’s when the discharge petition was put in motion. Many of us were getting tired of a minority in the Republican Party using their positions to obstruct important bills from being considered.”
Still, even some who vote with leadership regularly would have liked to see another outcome. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise both favor doing away with the lending institution. Rep. Devin Nunes said he would have liked to incrementally phase it out, and yet he is now left with little to show for it.
“As someone who wanted to get rid of the bank, I get nothing,” he said. “I think it shows a little bit of the problem here is if you try to get all or nothing, you get nothing. People need to realize, with a Democratic president, we need to stake out positions where we can make incremental improvement to the conservative agenda.”
And while the House may have passed it, the issue is likely to resurface as Congress looks at a multiyear highway reauthorization, giving conservatives another potential chance to keep the bank shuttered.
Those who voted for the budget deal were left similarly unfulfilled. To be sure, it averts what could be a disaster if the debt limit is not raised. But almost every member in the end said it was an imperfect deal for which they had to hold their noses and vote “yea.”
“Some of the issues give me heartburn, but we are moving forward,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said. “The American people expect us to govern, and I think what you’re seeing now is the House moving forward, frankly, on big issues—imperfect, sometimes ugly, but moving forward based on conservative principles.”
Still, more fights will come when the deal gets implemented: House appropriators will have to craft a massive omnibus bill by Dec. 11, which is sure to resurrect the same procedural objections the budget deal faced. The fiscal year 2017 appropriations process, meanwhile, will be full of the usual spending-rider land mines, despite an agreement on a top-line number.
The point of all this last-minute activity for Boehner was to hand Ryan a clean slate. Yet even if the next speaker comes in with fewer deadlines to meet, he has already earned some fresh suspicion from conservatives unhappy that he backed the budget deal. And now they’ll be watching closely to see what other compromises he might make.
Conservatives scored a victory by blocking the path for McCarthy. They also extracted promises from Ryan, like a pledge to enact procedural reforms and not to allow immigration reform to move forward without a majority of Republicans in favor.
But the candidate they sought, Rep. Daniel Webster, lost handily. Ryan, meanwhile, is a candidate to whom they could not say no: someone with the cult of personality and conservative bona fides to brush away objections as not credible, but who not two years ago struck a deal almost identical to Boehner’s budget deal and will most likely strike more.
Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.