Before Boehner: House Speakers and Make-Or-Break Votes

When the House votes later today, it could be a moment of triumph for Speaker John Boehner, in the aftermath of his full-court press to snap his caucus in line. Or it could all blow up in his face.

It’s in these moments that a leader’s legacy is made, but the consequences of a loss take time to sink in.

A Vote That Made a Difference

Speakers generally lose their leadership posts in the wake of disappointing election returns. Just ask Dick Gephardt or Newt Gingrich. But Matthew Green, author of The Speaker of the House: a Study of Leadership, there are key moments in history where one vote illustrated whether they were up to the job.

That job is to bring the majority caucus and get the votes for the leadership’s bills to pass, even when the policies crack open ideological fractures in the party.

When asked for an example of a Speaker who maneuvered those conditions deftly, Green points to Dennis Hastert. Before he had to fend off calls for his resignation because of the Mark Foley page scandal, he had to get the new Medicare prescription drug benefit through the Republican-controlled House. The bill was a top priority for the Bush administration, but many Republicans thought it too liberal while Democrats preferred a more comprehensive bill

The voting stayed open for three hours while Hastert and his team cajoled and persuaded members to change their stretched through the night, and it finally passed by five votes just short of 6am. The victory was not clean. Rep. Tom DeLay, Hastert’s Majority Leader, was later rebuked by the House Ethics Committee for improperly pressuring a retiring lawmaker by offering support for his son’s Congressional campaign. 

Democratic Speaker Jim Wright provides an example of overplaying his hand that haunted him for years. He was presiding over a key budget vote in 1987, that he scheduled despite ongoing bipartisan negotiations about reducing the deficit. He put it up to a test vote, and it failed. Then, he tried again, and it nearly failed – until he kept the vote open for an extra few extra minutes while one lawmaker changed his vote in the loud chaotic chamber.

“I don`t think he could have planned to screw it up this badly,” a Democratic aide told the Chicago Tribune at the time.

“That vote was an example of something that was more serious,” Green said. “He was unable to get a good pulse of his party in the House.”

That was a skill that would have been handy when Wright later got caught up in ethics scandals involving improper gifts and speaking fees. He became the first Speaker to resign from office because of a scandal. The lawmaker who filed the ethics charges: Newt Gingrich.  

The Lessons of Gingrich

The standoff between President Obama and House Republicans has political echoes of the debt ceiling debate in the mid-1990s. (Others, though, have pointed out the key differences in the debate’s economic context.) Like Boehner today, Speaker Newt Gingrich presided over a big class of freshman Republican representatives who have arrived in Washington with fire in their bellies and without any strong loyalties to the leadership status quo.

But Green says it’s misreading the current fracturing in the House as a Tea Party freshman taking on the established Republicans. It’s not all freshman driving this fight, and it’s the more established representatives who would benefit from room at the top if Boehner came out of this fight weakened.

That was the case in 1997, when Tom Delay, Dick Armey, and other House Republican leaders had to fend off accusations that they were secretly planning to knock Gingrich from the top leadership post. In that case, Green said it wasn’t a particular vote that led to the secret coup attempt, but the combined grating of disappointing results in the 1996 election and long-simmering discontent with Gingrich’s style.

“It was as much a style issue as it was a specific policy,” Green said. “He was not very good at communicating what he was going to do and what his strategy was. Republicans felt like this guy is not communicating with us, he’s not being forthright.”

Such mid-session power grabs are extremely rare, Green said, and the 1997 attempt doesn’t make it look like an attractive option. “All it did was hurt the reputation of the party and make them look divided,” Green said. If Boehner leaves a bunch of grousing GOP-ers in his wake, Green said it’s more likely members will hold onto their grudges and make their move after the 2012 elections.

As for Gingrich, he resigned the Speakership – and his seat in the House – after disappointing returns in the 1998 midterm elections.

This Speaker’s Moment

For now, Green said he’s been impressed with Boehner’s legislative maneuvering so far. There’s a common misperception that leaders in congress force members to do things, that they threaten and cajole them,” he said. “By far, most of the things that party leaders do is not aggressive, not threatening. It’s persuasion, it’s listening. More of the kinds of things that Boehner’s doing now.”

Or, the real winner could be Nancy Pelosi, who has the leverage to help Boehner make up for any Republican defections as the House and Senate move to incorporate their competing bills.