John Boehner

Get Ready for Speaker Paul Ryan

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty on Capitol Hill, the Republican House majority finally appears to have its next speaker in sight: Congressman Paul Ryan. 

Remember him? The conservative budget guru from Wisconsin who would have been vice president three years ago if Mitt Romney had won. He’s set to be selected for the position on Thursday, and now it looks like he has enough Republican votes to win the job.  
 
Ryan initially seemed disinterested in replacing Speaker John Boehner, who is retiring to avoid more infighting in his caucus and after he realized his dream of having a Pope address Congress.

Ryan's reluctance isn't surprising. Trying to run the House with his own troops in revolt is a tough job, especially for a guy who says he will only take the job if he still can go home to Janesville every weekend to be with his family.
 
Despite pressure from Boehner and Romney, Ryan said he was perfectly happy holding onto his dream job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. But that changed late last week after it became clear no one else had a remote chance of stitching together a majority of the Republican caucus.
 
Ryan became a household name after rising to the top of the House Budget Committee in 2007. Since then, he’s proposed several budget plans with bold social service cuts, such as replacing Medicare with a voucher system and repealing the Affordable Care Act. 
 
Two years ago, Ryan emerged as the key Republican negotiator in a budget deal co-authored by Democratic Senator Patty Murray. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in a time increasingly marred by political polarization.  
 
A famously devout fan of controversial novelist Ayn Rand and heavy metal bands, Ryan stands in sharp contrast to the man he’s poised to replace. And maybe that would be a good change for Congress, but don’t get your hopes up that Ryan’s latest rise in the ranks will do much to sew the Republican Party back together. 
 
With 247 members today, House Republicans hold their largest majority in decades, and Ryan’s ascent makes him the de facto leader of a splintered party conference, which includes the centrist Tuesday Group, the larger, very conservative Republican Study Committee and the radical, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus.
 
Ryan, a member of the Republican Study Committee, initially struggled to gain the approval of the Freedom Caucus, which consists of a few dozen representatives who have generally put in less time on Capitol Hill. Last week, about two-thirds of them came around, cautiously giving Ryan their blessing, but not promising to make his job any easier than Boehner’s.
 
Comprised of many members of the Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus refused to support any spending bill that did not strip all federal funding away from Planned Parenthood. In cases like that, the faction’s opposition can be just enough to bring the legislative process to a halt.  
 
Ryan's path appears to be easier than expected, thanks to Boehner, who managed to push through a debt ceiling and spending deal Wednesday. Congressional leaders struck the crucial two-year budget deal Monday night following negotiations with the Obama Administration.

Leaders hope to move the proposal along for a vote in the Senate, getting the dirty work out of the way just in time for Ryan’s entrance to the speakership. The deal has already met some resistance from Sen. Rand Paul, who vowed to filibuster the proposal.   
 
Chances are good the Freedom Caucus will remain a thorn in the side of any Speaker. Chances also are good that Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who is in charge of fundraising for House Republicans, will take on an expanded role since Ryan won't hit the road like Boehner did.

The challenge for Ryan will be to figure out clever ways to negotiate with the White House, a more stable GOP majority in the Senate and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pushing for more job security, Ryan hopes to change a rule that allows a single member of the House to move for a vote to remove the speaker. In Boehner’s time, the rule has posed a constant threat to his hold over the speakership. That may be the only way to neuter the Freedom Caucus enough to get on with the business of legislating.

Boehner Bombshell Shifts Capitol Landscape

Speaker John Boehner's bombshell resignation announcement shifted the political ground on Capitol Hill, making short-term issues easier to resolve, but creating some longer term obstacles that may be harder to move.

Speaker John Boehner's bombshell resignation announcement shifted the political ground on Capitol Hill, making short-term issues easier to resolve, but creating some longer term obstacles that may be harder to move.

Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement to retire at the end of October has shifted the landscape on Capitol Hill and may presage an even more dramatic shift later this year.

No longer beholden to the "Freedom Caucus"  – the far right flank of the GOP, Boehner has the flexibility to push more moderate legislation through the House over the next 32 days. The question is, how much can he really get done and what are the short- and long-term implications for the next House Speaker?

In the short-term, the retirement announcement has provided breathing room for the Speaker. The chances of an October 1 government shutdown have nearly evaporated, bipartisan passage of a drama-free debt ceiling bill is more likely and there is hope for a compromise on a transportation/tax reform package. Without the constant threat of a motion to "vacate the Speaker," other bills could hitch a ride on a fast track, including reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

Don't get too optimistic. It's also clear the next Speaker will have to deal with the consequences of an unhinged Boehner. Next in line to the Speakership is Boehner friend and ally, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California. The more bipartisan legislation that moves in October, the higher the level of conservative frustration later in the GOP caucus. To be elected Speaker, McCarthy can only lose 29 votes from the GOP ranks – 24 of whom already voted against Boehner in January. Thus, McCarthy can only lose five more Republicans to avoid an all-out scramble for the Speaker's position. 

If McCarthy is tied to the Speaker's actions over the next month, his ascension to Speaker could be put in jeopardy. So Boehner is still going to have to balance the risks and rewards of moving legislation in his final days. Bipartisan action would continue to stoke tensions within the Republican Party and could bring the confrontation past the boiling point to a full revolt. Boehner is a master politician though, so he may manage to clear the decks of some of the most contentious issues and leave the institution he loves on a high note.

Here is some quick analysis on how key provisions could be impacted by the Speaker's departure:

September 30 Budget Showdown/Shutdown – Boehner is no longer beholden to the far right and word from GOP leadership is the Speaker will offer up a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded through December 11. The CR will not contain the controversial repeal of funding for Planned Parenthood. Without the Planned Parenthood funding repeal, the GOP will lose 30-50 votes for the CR and Republicans will need to rely on Democrats to pass the bill. The measure will likely pass by Wednesday evening, just in time for the September 30 end of fiscal year deadline.

Debt Limit Increase – Another casualty of Boehner's departure could be a showdown over the debt limit. With an historic debt of $19 trillion, the country needs to increase its credit limit once again before it defaults. Unfortunately, the debt limit increase is becoming an annual affair. 

The timeline for default is not exact, but will likely happen in November. It's expected Boehner will try to act before he leaves office to clear the decks for the next Speaker. Typically, the Freedom Caucus has been steadfast in its opposition to raising the debt limit without a dollar-for-dollar cut in spending. The Obama Administration meanwhile has said the debt limit is not a tool for negotiation, even though in 2011, that's how we got the Super Committee and Sequestration. 

Transportation and Tax Reform– The fate of the transportation bill also could benefit. Word out of leadership and the House T&I Committee is that Chairman Bill Shuster and Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan have a six-year package that is ready to be unveiled. With the blessing of the Speaker, a transportation/tax reform package could receive an expedited path to the floor of the House. Many Freedom Caucus members have opposed additional federal spending on transportation. October could be the perfect time to get a popular bipartisan bill through the House.

Sequestration Cap – Without another 2013 Murray/Ryan type of agreement, the two-year sequestration relief bill will expire October 1. Both Republicans and Democrats want to lift the cap, but for different reasons. Republicans generally want more defense spending, while Democrats want more non-defense spending. It is hard to be optimistic that the Speaker can reach a deal to lift the spending caps before he leaves. However, there will certainly be pressure on him to expedite negotiations and resolve the issue.

December 11 – The likelihood of a government shutdown on December 11 has gone up significantly. An emboldened Freedom Caucus, a lame duck President Obama and presidential politics are could conspire to make this a tumultuous December. It will take  fancy footwork from both sides to come together on the FY16 spending package.

Nuclear Fallout and a Looming Shutdown Threat

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

The Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration looks like a done deal, which makes it all the more puzzling why House Republicans are arguing over how to vote to oppose it.

Politico.com reports that House GOP leaders returned from summer recess to discover a rank-and-file revolt. Every House Republican opposes the Iran nuclear deal, but some resist voting on a simple resolution of disapproval. That has forced the House leadership to come up with a plan, which will be shared with caucus members today, to quiet the discontent.

The agitation in the House has led political observers to wonder whether Speaker John Boehner can survive or whether he can steer some course on a debt ceiling vote later this fall to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Congress left town in August anticipating a high-octane advertising and lobbying campaign could sway Senate Democrats from supporting the Iran nuclear deal. However, a coordinated campaign led by the White House kept up pressure to support the deal, calling it the only deal Congress would see.

By the time Congress returned, more than 40 senators, including all four senators from Oregon and Washington, had come up publicly in support of the deal, ensuring that a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval could not be overridden.

The specter of a clear path for the deal prompted House Republicans to call for other ways to express opposition. One idea was a resolution declaring Obama administration officials failed to send all parts of the deal, including side deals, to Congress. Another idea is to frame the House vote as a resolution of approval, which would force Obama allies to vote for the deal, not just against a resolution disapproving it.

Senate Republicans shrugged their shoulders at House proposals and appear on track to put forward a resolution of disapproval, which all Senate Republicans and a few Democrats are expected to support. If there is nothing comparable in the House, then no legislation may ever reach Obama's desk for him to veto. Congress only has until September 17 to act.

With the Iran deal more or less sewed up, the maneuvering in the House now seems more like a dress rehearsal for the looming debt ceiling vote last this fall. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed any effort to force a government shutdown, but conservative activists may not give up. Boehner has little choice but to find ways to placate his restive conservative wing.

"Foreign Affairs" published an online article examining what might happen after the 15-year period covered by the Iran nuclear deal comes to an end. At a minimum, there will be new leadership in Iran, plus the effects of rapidly changing demographics that could make the post-pact period a very different ballgame.

Hasty Retreat on 529 College Savings Plans

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration beat a hasty and tactical retreat by yanking its idea to tax 529 College Savings Plan investment earnings. The proposal drew bipartisan barbs in defense of the popular college savings accounts available in most states.

Obama spokesperson said the 529 plan tax proposal was scrapped to allow the focus to remain on other parts of the President's higher education initiative, especially free tuition for two years of community college paid for by an increase in the federal capital gains tax. They also said the tax revenue from the proposal wasn't that large anyway.

However, the pressure to dump the idea was intense. Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, said eliminating the tax-preferred status of 529 College Savings Plans would hurt middle-class Americans. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said pretty much the same thing as she rode with President Obama on his Air Force One flight from India to Saudi Arabia.

529 College Savings Plans vary from state to state, but essentially allow contributors — usually parents and grandparents — to put money into an account for a student and receive a tax break. The earnings on money in the student's 529 account aren't taxable as long as they are withdrawn down the line for a qualified educational expense.

Data shows that 80 percent of the tax benefits from contributions to more than 7 million existing 529 plan accounts go to households with more than $150,000 of annual income and 70 percent to households earning more than $200,000. Defenders of 529 plans say 10 percent of contributions are attributed to households with $50,000 or less in annual income, which means the program also works as an incentive for lower-earning households.

Obama's proposal sought to redirect tax benefits associated with college expenses to an expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, which started in the 2009 economic stimulus bill as a tuition credit aimed at helping families paying for college, even if they didn't earn enough to pay federal income tax. The Government Accountability Office ran estimates showing Obama's plan would drive more economic benefits for families with $100,000 or less in annual income than the current 529 plan benefits.

“It’s kind of baffling that people in the middle are convinced they are getting hit hard when virtually all of them are the winners,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the New York Times.

However, that was lost in the political furor Obama's plan ignited.

529 plans are popular in part because they are a fairly easy way to transfer wealth from one generation to another. Tax benefits aren't always the primary motivating reason for the contributions. Threatening these plans showed their broad-based acceptance and popularity by many middle-income families and households.

Picture of Gridlock

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

It was easy to spot who was who last night at President Obama's next-to-last State of the Union Address to Congress. The people standing up and cheering were fellow Democrats. The people sitting down were Republicans.

After the speech, GOP spokesmen said Obama needs a "reality check" because many of his proposals, such as raising taxes on wealthy Americans, won't fly in the new Congress controlled by Republicans. Democrats said Republicans can't admit that the economy is rolling and are unwilling to tackle issues such as wage stagnation that hobble middle and lower income Americans.

You could say the packed House chamber was the picture of gridlock in Washington, DC.

A close-up of that picture was visible as the TV cameras showed the respective reactions from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner who were seated behind Obama during the speech. Biden nodded in agreement and rose repeatedly to applaud. Boehner clapped his hands tepidly a few times and mostly grimaced as Obama spoke.

Republicans say Obama failed to acknowledge voter repudiation of his policies that led the GOP to majorities in both the House and Senate. They also say he missed opportunities to identify areas of potential compromise, such as steps to strengthen Medicare.

Obama did cross swords with his own party by asking for fast-track authority to negotiate new international trade agreements in Europe and Asia, which many Republicans support. But he promised vetoes on legislation that tried to undo his executive actions on immigration.

Despite the closing section of Obama's speech where he said Washington is better than gridlock, there was little in his text or delivery to suggest he was willing to budge on his political priorities. Many observers called his speech the first salvo in the 2016 election.

When Obama mentioned he has no more election campaigns, some congressional Republicans applauded. Obama, with a smile on his face, shot back, "I know because I won both of them." The President also looked directly at the concentration of Republicans in the chamber when he ticked off positive economic indicators and said something to the effect of "That's good stuff."

For their part, Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak from the same podium as Obama did. Netanyahu has objected to the deal the Obama administration is trying to cut with Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Boehner pointedly told reporters he extended the invitation to Netanyahu without notifying Obama.

The President's speech and Republican reactions follow what has become a political ritual. Now that political points have been made and battle lines drawn, it is still possible Obama and GOP congressional leaders can do some of the country's business.

Cantor Loss Could Lead to Walden Promotion

The upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Tuesday could be a boon for Oregon, as Congressman Greg Walden will seek to step up from his current GOP leadership post.

Walden, the lone Republican in Oregon's congressional delegation, could be in the mix for a loftier leadership position after Cantor’s July resignation following his surprise defeat at the hands of a little-known economics professor backed by the Tea Party in this week's Virginia primary election. 

Walden easily survived his own Tea Party challenge in Oregon's primary last month.

Walden chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. He is close to House Speaker John Boehner, who is coming to Oregon for a Walden fundraiser. Walden is friendly with Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, who wasted no time launching his bid to succeed Cantor.

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes says Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the Republican conference — the fourth ranking GOP leadership perch — also is interested in Cantor's former job. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California is next in the leadership pecking order and can be expected to vie to move up.

Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus

Congress works in wondrous ways with GOP members voting no on bills they hope will pass so they aren't blamed for the results of not passing.The House and Senate votes this week to raise the federal debt ceiling to avoid the threat of default highlighted what a New York Times analyst called the "Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus" in Congress.

Debt ceiling legislation passed in the GOP-controlled House with only 28 Republican "yes" votes. Times reporter Carl Hulse said that "was the lowest percentage for a majority on passage since the House began publishing electronic data on votes in 1991."

The Senate struggled to close off debate with the required 60 votes until GOP leaders relented and provided the handful of votes needed to bring up the legislation for an actual vote.

"The results in both the Senate and House," Hulse concluded, "illustrate the countervailing political forces at work on Capitol Hill and how the current partisan environment makes governing so difficult."

The Real Hastert Rule

Thumb through the U.S. Constitution and you won't find the Hastert Rule, which says no bill can come to the House floor unless there are enough votes to pass it in the majority caucus. Turns out former Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, said there never was a Hastert Rule.

This is relevant because current House Speaker John Boehner has invoked the Hastert Rule in blocking legislation that might attract enough Republicans and Democrats to pass, but doesn't have enough votes to pass with just Republicans.

Sound illogical? Perhaps, but it is the leverage exerted by the Tea Party faction of the House GOP conference. They have enough votes to deny Boehner the 218 vote-majority he needs of his fellow party members. This leverage is what has landed Congress in gridlock and led to a partial federal government shutdown, now entering its fourth day.

Republican spokesmen have made a lot out of President Obama and Senate Democrats refusing to negotiate to "find common ground" on defunding Obamacare. But another way to look at the stalemate is that the House is not letting is full membership exercise its collective judgment in deference to a minority that could be as few as 30 members.

Apart from the grandstanding and finger pointing on Capitol Hill, there is a valid question about whether the presumptive Hastert Rule is constitutional or at least in the spirit of the Constitution.

James Madison and other founding fathers detested what they called "factions." They worried that partisan considerations could overtake policy considerations. While senators have the right to filibuster any legislation of which they disapprove, no such privilege extends in the House.

Political Merry-Go-Round Keeps Spinning

What's a circus without a merry-go-round? Washington is becoming more like a three-ring circus with conflicting political agendas.

Washington, DC is a fascinating place. Just consider the last 24 hours.

President Obama, America's first black chief executive, mounts a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama praises King for words that "belong to the ages," chides those who dismiss racial gains since the 1963 speech and points out unfinished work to curb growing income inequality in America.

At a fundraiser in Idaho, House Speaker John Boehner tees up a battle with Obama over raising the federal debt ceiling this fall. Despite a warning from the Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that the nation will run out of cash in mid-October, Boehner promises a "whale of a battle," including a possible shutdown of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry warns that those responsible for the toxic gas attack in Syria will be held accountable and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. warships are ready to obey a presidential order to launch cruise missiles at military targets in the war-torn country. Senator John McCain, who has advocated U.S. military intervention for months, calls leaks about pending missile strikes "crazy."

Lame Duck for Holiday Season

Congress is back in town to stare at the same tax, debt and jobs issues as before the election — with the same fiscal cliff looming in a mere 48 days.

In addition to the impact of the 2012 election results, the lame duck congressional session has experienced the financial reverberations of cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy and the surprising sexual revelations that forced the resignation of popular CIA Director David Petraeus.

Pending fiscal mayhem mixed with a DC political drama combining sex, power, cover-ups, imprudent emails and possible national security lapses provides the perfect punctuation mark for what has been a tortuous and seemingly endless political season.

So while Republicans pondered how to reinvent themselves and Democrats openly negotiated on how to negotiate, the Congressional Budget Office renewed its warning of a potential recession unless Congress reaches a bipartisan agreement to avert sharp tax increases and automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. CBO says the U.S gross domestic product in 2013 could drop by 0.5 percent and unemployment rise to more than 9 percent.

Members from both major political parties appear eager to resolve the problem, but at the moment are jockeying for position. House Speaker John Boehner told his chastened GOP caucus some compromise on revenue will be necessary. Democratic Budget Committee leaders signaled an interest in the income tax deduction cap proposed by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which echoed an idea earlier surfaced by President Obama.

Hashtag Warfare

If politics is war, then Twitter is the neutron bomb. Politicians are engaging in hashtag warfare to stake out positions and target opponents without ever talking to a reporter or entering a TV studio.

You know you have a powerful weapon, says The Washington Post, when the President of the United States incorporates hashtags into his speeches, as he did last week — #dontdoublemyrate — in pressuring the GOP-led House to block an increase in student loan interest rates. After whipping up a student crowd in Chapel Hill that chanted the hashtag, there were almost instantaneously 20,000 tweets with the hashtag. 

Within 45 minutes, House Speaker John Boehner responded, using the hashtag, blaming Democrats for the student loan rate increase. Conservative groups seized on the hashtag to rip Obama over gas prices and lingering high unemployment rates, a risk you run in hashtag warfare.

Ann Romney chose Twitter to respond to criticism about her being a stay-at-home mom. Her tweet — "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." — reframed the conversation in thousands of retweets. Critics changed the subject.

Twitter-bombing isn't just an American political phenomenon. It played a huge role in the Arab Spring upheavals. Reportedly the new president of Chile instructed his cabinet ministers to tweet to build grassroots support for his new policies.

Facebook has tons more users, but Twitter has become the go-to place to find out the latest news. That is just the kind of battlefront that attracts political operatives. Shots fired on Twitter wind up ricocheting on Facebook and, ultimately, populate searches on Google.