WASHINGTON – Washington is often-criticized for its inside baseball. But Congressional leadership contests are more insular than that. They’re the quantum mechanics of politics. Molecular in nature, there are only a few specialists in Washington who understand the physics of leadership races.
No Washington laboratory is more obscure — yet has so much national impact. For it’s leadership races that gave us Newt Gingrich. Dick Cheney. Tom Daschle. John Boehner. Steny Hoyer. People who hold sway over the country for years and carry immense political clout. But their power was forged at the sub-atomic level. Moving around a neuron here. An electron there.
Hold onto your protons. We could be in for another one in November over who will lead House Republicans next year.
You’ve heard of partisan politics? Call this particle politics.
For three weeks, Wall Street and the financial sector focused their attention on Capitol Hill as they watched lawmakers wrestle with the $700 billion financial rescue package.
But the tussles over the bill weren’t half as fascinating as the GOP palace politics that played out during the bill’s negotiations.
The intrigue over who may lead House Republicans exposed fissures in the GOP ranks. And it left many asking if it was House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) who were the ones in need of a bailout.
The House GOP knew 2008 was going to be a slog. It installed Boehner as its floor leader in February 2006 after the demise of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). But when Republicans lost control of the House later that fall, there were signals that conservatives in the House might not be happy with Boehner. In leadership elections for the 110th Congress, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) challenged Boehner for leader and Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) faced off with Blunt for whip.
The Pence and Shadegg bids were never more than token opposition. But they put Team Boehner-Blunt on notice that conservatives were watching.
Pence and Shadegg have long been players in the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the most conservative bloc of members in the House. Touting a platform of slicing earmarks and fiscal responsibility, the RSC regularly expresses muted frustration with Boehner and Blunt. But 2009 could present an opportunity for the RSC.
Just a few months ago, it appeared as though the GOP may even pick up seats in this fall’s election. In fact, the man charged with electing Republicans to the House, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) boasted that 2008 “wouldn’t be as bad” as 2006.
But in just the past two weeks, things have gone from bad to worse for the GOP. With the election less than a month away, Republicans are facing a potential bloodbath at the polls with the possibility of losing as many as 30 seats.
If it’s that bad, House Republicans will undoubtedly demand new leadership at the top. And the makeup of 2009 House GOP Conference will be much more conservative than the current one.
Retirements and election defeats have purged the House Republican ranks of moderates. In 2006, moderates like former Reps. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) and Jim Leach (R-IA) lost. This cycle features the retirements of moderate voices like Reps. Ray LaHood (R-IL), Tom Davis (R-VA), Ralph Regula (R-OH) and Deborah Pryce (R-OH). That means conservatives will hold more sway in the coming session. And they certainly flexed their muscles in the scrap over the financial emergency legislation.
When Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson unveiled his $700 billion blueprint to salvage the nation’s financial system, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signed onto the package almost immediately. They didn’t like the price tag. But both leaders realized the measure was essential to stave off immediate economic ruin.
Within hours, the Republican Study Committee began lobbing bombs. Everything from outright opposition to the suggestion of a go-slow approach.
Taking fire from his right flank, Boehner returned a volley of his own. In a statement, Boehner warned against leveraging the bailout for political gain. Certainly part of that was intended for Democrats in an effort to prevent them from larding the bill with pork. But it was also a shot across the bow of restless conservatives who saw an opening.
Talks to forge a deal went full tilt as lawmakers returned to Washington on September 22 after the weekend. Key committee chairs and ranking Republicans from both the House and Senate huddled behind closed doors. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the top Republican on the House Financial Service Committee, was part of the negotiations and appeared to be representing House Republicans.
By mid-morning on September 25, the negotiators appeared before the cameras to declare they had “a deal.” But by noon, Bachus shocked a scrum of reporters in the Speaker’s Lobby by declaring “there is no deal.”
Things unraveled further at what has become the legendary, testy meeting at the White House involving President Bush, John McCain and Congressional leaders of both parties.
Democrats went into the session expecting the sides to apply their final stamps of approval on the proposal. But sources familiar with the conclave indicate that Boehner told the principals he didn’t have the political support of conservatives to sign off on the deal. And the sources say Boehner struggled to offer specifics that would deliver the votes.
Tempers flared and the session unraveled into a partisan clash.
Later, the Minority Leader described the session as a “gang up on Boehner” and added “they thought they were rolling me. They were kidding themselves.”
At a meeting of the House Republican Conference, cheers went up heralding Boehner for standing his ground at the White House donnybrook.
A Republican source later told me that Boehner was trying to inoculate himself from House conservatives who were yipping mad about the Paulson plan.
Boehner then unceremoniously dumped Bachus as the GOP negotiator and instead deputized Blunt to be the House Republican broker in the talks.
Immediately, there were questions about why Boehner tapped Blunt. Certainly it would help to have someone of Blunt’s stature in the room. And Blunt is known for having good relations negotiating tough issues with Democrats.
But conspiracy theories abounded. One suggested that Boehner asked Blunt to negotiate so he’d be the one conservatives would blame if they still weren’t satisfied with the final product. That way, Boehner could argue that Blunt sold conservatives down the river and at the same time, maintain his credibility in conservative quarters. Potentially, that could shield Boehner from a leadership challenge and force conservatives to instead target Blunt.
Still, there’s another wrinkle. Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) has made it clear he wants an upgrade in his leadership post. The natural chain of progression would be for Cantor to challenge Blunt. But there have been rumblings that Cantor might aim higher.
With a decimated bench, Cantor’s one of the few viable figures in the Republican ranks to make a serious leadership challenge to Boehner or Blunt. But conservatives believe Cantor’s stock may have fallen.
Cantor voted for the bailout package and was one of the prime, backroom negotiators of the pact. Plus, Cantor tried to pin the bill’s initial defeat on the partisan rhetoric of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA), which was quickly disregarded by members on both sides of the aisle .
At a hastily-arranged news conference after the bill failed, it was Cantor who deployed a visual aid of the Speaker’s remarks and declared her floor speech “inappropriate.”
Besides Cantor vying for a leadership position, the next obvious choices might be Mike Pence, John Shadegg or the head of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX).
Pence and Shadegg have leadership races under their belts. But some view Pence, Shadegg and Hensarling as too ideological to lead. Shadegg even faces a re-election fight this fall. But with dim electoral prospects and an evolving conservative base, one or any of this trio could make a move.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is regarded as one of the sharpest minds in Congress and is often touted as the future of the party. A wunderkind, Ryan is not even yet 40 but has already spent a decade in the House. But it’s said he has no interest in leadership now.
Then there are dark horses. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is just a freshman — but clearly ambitious. Boehner drafted McCarthy to chair the panel that drafted the party platform for this year’s Republican convention in St. Paul, MN. And McCarthy co-founded (with Cantor and Ryan) the “Young Guns,” an effort to draft and support young Republicans to help the GOP take back the majority.
McCarthy is considered a likely bet to replace Tom Cole as the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). But party insiders say the proper political alignment could offer McCarthy the opportunity to shoot even higher.
So there’s confusion in the Republican ranks. A November pasting coupled with a growing conservative base could threaten the current GOP leadership team.
Of course, you can’t beat someone with no one. And as it stands right now, no one on the Republican side of the aisle is chomping for a promotion besides Cantor.
But remember the ephemeral nature of party leadership contests.
In February, 2006, Blunt was the odds-on favorite to succeed DeLay as Majority Leader. But support for Blunt was a mile wide and an inch thick. Even though Blunt commanded more support than Boehner, the Ohio Republican had just enough support to force a second ballot and then won in an upset.
In 1994, Republicans seized control of the senate. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) retired. And the race was on between Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Tom Daschle (D-SD) to lead Senate Democrats.
No one has ever heard of Senate Democratic Leader Dodd. That’s because Daschle eked out a one vote victory over Dodd and led Senate Democrats for 10 years. The reason? Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). At the time, Campbell was a Democrat. And even though he became a Republican a few months later, Campbell cast the decisive vote for Daschle. A Native American, Campbell opted to back Daschle over Dodd because. He thought his South Dakota colleague had a better understanding of Indian affairs than a Connecticut Yankee.
When studying quantum mechanics, physicists often wrestle with the Uncertainty Principle. It states that position of and the speed of sub-atomic particles cannot be known at the same time.
That’s the case this fall among House GOP ranks. There’s a lot of uncertainty. And no one knows the position and speed of the Boehner-Blunt-Cantor-Shadegg-Hensarling-Ryan-McCarthy particles whizzing round the House Republican leadership particle accelerator.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.