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How John Boehner’s pro-business agenda got derailed

Boehner 'Encouraged' Obama Fast-Track Trade Plan Will Pass HouseBoehner 'Encouraged' Obama Fast-Track Trade Plan Will Pass House
U.S. House Speaker John BoehnerPhotograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

To understand what happened in the House yesterday, it’s helpful to rewind the clock. Precisely a year prior, John Boehner was doing one of the things he does best: Crisscrossing the country to raise campaign cash for House Republican candidates. Specifically, that day, the House Speaker was in Portland, Maine, headlining a closed-door fundraiser for a former state treasurer named Bruce Poliquin, who was locked in a tight, open-seat battle to represent the state’s sprawling northern reaches.

Poliquin, a Harvard-educated former investment manager, typified the brand of Republican that Boehner urgently needed in the House — ideologically conservative but also tactically practical, with an understanding there was no dividend in the torch-and-pitchfork crowd’s approach. A small band of rightwing reactionaries had spent four years turning Boehner’s tenure as Speaker into an unending migraine. They almost precipitated the nation’s first debt default in 2011, forced a disastrous government shutdown in 2013, and made progress on major compromises in a still-divided government impossible. More personally for Boehner, one of their ilk had knocked off his deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a June primary, scuttling the Speaker’s plan to step down at the end of that Congress. Boehner felt compelled to delay retirement until his party found surer footing.

So in hotel ballrooms and private living rooms across the country, Boehner spent last fall making an explicit appeal to Republican business types: Contribute to the cause of electing a “governing majority” — that is, one with enough padding to ensure Boehner could ignore his troublesome right flank (“knuckleheads,” as he called them in one such session) while marshaling votes from more cooperative members to actually get stuff done. On Election Day, Poliquin won, one of 13 Republican pickups that Boehner helped deliver to secure the biggest GOP majority in the chamber since the 1920s. The results, along with the Republican takeover of the Senate, renewed hope in the party’s business wing for a return to normalcy following its bout of Tea Party dyspepsia.

It wouldn’t last. On Jan 6., after swearing in an historic majority, Boehner made history again, suffering the biggest intraparty defection against his reelection as House leader in more than 150 years. The 25 Republicans who revolted formed the core of a rump group that’s of late been agitating for his ouster, and another shutdown, over federal support for Planned Parenthood.

Poliquin has done his bit. He joined ten other Republican freshmen this week on a letter to colleagues urging them to avoid a stunt they called “unnecessary and harmful.” But the inertia of the GOP’s rightward lurch has proved insurmountable. The evidence lies in the work undone on Boehner’s business-friendly agenda: a Pacific trade deal enabled but incomplete; an Ex-Im bank in liquidation; infrastructure investment imperiled rather than expanded; tax and immigration overhauls as remote as ever. The Republican presidential field’s near uniform embrace of his resignation spells clearly what Boehner himself knows. Despite its best efforts, the establishment is losing the battle to reclaim the party’s soul.