After Boehner, What?

Renewed unity unlikely for divided GOP caucus that speaker failed to lead.

Today: Boehner resigns

BOB: Speaker John Boehner shocked Washington, including me, when he announced his departure from Congress at the end of October. Boehner has had a tumultuous five years, mostly wrestling with his own deeply divided Republican caucus. The failure of Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans to agree on much of anything made him feel he has had enough.

CAL: To paraphrase a parable, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a politician to give up power. The question now for Republicans, the Democrats in Congress, President Obama and the country these people are supposed to serve is: What’s next? Boehner’s designated successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is already being criticized by some on the right as Boehner II, because of what conservatives believe is his desire to avoid confrontation by surrendering to the Democratic minority.

BOB: What will change post-Boehner? Not much. There will be more chaos in the Republican caucus. Boehner has 24 years of experience in the House. McCarthy was elected in 2006, a rookie by House standards. McCarthy is known for his “listening sessions” with his caucus, but listening does not erase deep divisions.

CAL: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll finds 72% of Republican voters are dissatisfied with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A Fox News Poll says 62% of Republicans feel betrayed by their party. That’s because they believe correctly that Republicans promise one thing to get elected — such as repealing Obamacare and reducing the size and cost of government — but then cave when they get a majority and Democrats threaten a government shutdown if they don’t get their way.

BOB: On Face the Nation last Sunday, Boehner called the Republican right wing — voters and House members alike — “false prophets” because of their “unrealistic” expectations.

CAL: It’s not unrealistic, Bob, to ask people you vote for to do what they say. Conservatives understand math. They know there aren’t enough votes to override presidential vetoes. What they want to see is Republicans bringing the fight to the Democrats and the president and making a case to voters that their ideas work. The public usually doesn’t pay attention to arguments among Washington politicians, but getting this close to another government shutdown will cause them to focus. That can help move the Republican agenda forward, perhaps into the presidential election.

BOB: Ideological purity does not now nor has it ever produced results. The promise to go after Obamacare, which Republicans tried several times at the behest of the right, only to be shut down by the Senate, was a fool’s errand. Not only would Obama veto any major changes in his signature health care law, but if you notice, more Americans are insured this year than ever.

CAL: Obamacare remains deeply unpopular, largely because of broken Democratic promises such as lower premiums and “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Premiums are going up. Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have proposed meaningful health care reform to replace Obamacare, but after winning the GOP has to follow through.

BOB: Looking ahead, Congress faces two very difficult issues before the end of this year. Although it appears members have agreed on a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government running for two more months, the whole issue of the budget will be back in full force, led by the right’s assault on Planned Parenthood. There’s no way they will be able to defund Planned Parenthood. More important, the debt ceiling — which regulates how much money the government can borrow — runs out before the end of the year. That will cause a major polarizing fight in the House and Senate.

CAL: Just before Republicans won back the House in 2010, I interviewed then-Minority Leader Boehner. He told me what he believed to be his mission in Congress: “I came here for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government and that has not been what’s been happening. We don’t need any more programs; we need to undo a lot of programs.” But during his time in office, the debt has increased nearly $4 trillion, according to the Treasury Department. That’s one of many reasons conservatives hate the establishment and its broken promises.

BOB: In the view of many observers, this has been the least productive Congress in history. The principle reason is growing and deepening polarization. Congress is not doing its job and the public knows why. If lawmakers keep this up, voters may deal with it with the only power they have: at the polls.

CAL: They already are dealing with it. That’s what the rebellion in both parties is about. It’s why Sen. Bernie Sanders is rising in the polls against Hillary Clinton and why the top Republican presidential candidates are outsiders. Voters send these people here. Maybe they had better try for some common ground among themselves, because if they remain at each other’s throats, so will the people they send to Washington.