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After Shutdown Dust Clears, Where Does Boehner Stand?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Today marks the second day of relative normalcy following 16 days of government shutdown and the prospect of a U.S. default on its debts. A pivotal player in this drama was House Speaker John Boehner. He was portrayed alternately as a victim of Tea Party hardliners, as a figurehead haplessly stumbling through this crisis, or as a clever leader who had the ending figured out all along.

NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith is here to talk about how Boehner has emerged from all this. Tamara, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So did John Boehner have things under control through this whole thing or was he being run over?

KEITH: It's a little bit of both. He likes to say that he lets the House work its will, and in that case that meant going along with a defund Obamacare strategy that made the government shutdown essentially inevitable. He did what the Tea Party members wanted because that was the only way he could get enough votes among the Republicans to pass anything.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about the math there for just one second. I mean the calculation was that if he let the moderates sort of set the agenda, the Tea Party members wouldn't come along and so the GOP wouldn't be in control. And so the only way to let the Republicans have all of the votes they need was to let the Tea Party set the agenda and bring the moderates along with them.

KEITH: And the moderates would come along with them because they don't want a lot of real estate between themselves and the Tea Party because they could get a primary challenge. So the moderates went along until they didn't. And you know, this was not a course that the speaker would have chosen, but once he was forced into it, he went all in.

And on Wednesday, just before admitting defeat in a private meeting with House Republicans, he called in to his hometown radio station WLW in Cincinnati.


KEITH: And he doesn't sound like a man who's completely defeated either.

GREENE: No, he doesn't sound like a man who's been defeated, Tamara Keith. And I guess I wonder, I mean if the speaker of the House I mean had his druthers, I mean can't you just do what you want as speaker? I mean can't you sort of run the show in that job?

KEITH: You could, but this speaker doesn't do it that way. He does not rule with an iron fist. He can't turn to his Tea Party members and say you must vote for this because they wouldn't listen. But I also get the sense that he doesn't want to do it that way. And take the vote on final passage of this deal Wednesday night. He urged his members to vote for it and only 87 did.

And it passed because Nancy Pelosi delivered all of the Democrats. The amazing thing, though, is that most House Republicans seem fine with this outcome. Back in March, I interviewed a Texas Republican, Blake Farenthold, after a similar vote where the speaker brought a bill to the floor that didn't have the support of the majority of the majority, the majority of Republicans.

And I expected some outrage, but instead he said he was grateful for letting Boehner - for Boehner letting him vote on principle without fear or reprisal.

REPRESENATIVE BLAKE FARENTHOLD: They'll come urge me to vote their way but they've never insisted I compromise my principles. And that's something I respect the speaker for.

GREENE: Well, Tamara Keith, I mean there are more battles ahead. As we know, this doesn't solve things or change the dynamic in Washington all that much, but as we look at Boehner right now, does he have a firm grasp on the speakership, on his job?

KEITH: I'd say yes. Back in January he faced a coup attempt from some of the Tea Party members and one of the guys who helped lead that coup told me now this speaker is on 100 percent solid ground. There are some other conservatives who were less than thrilled with how he executed the strategy, but there was this feeling that House Republicans ended up negotiating with themselves and they didn't get that great a deal.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

KEITH: But overwhelmingly, I heard people say that they supported him because he fought to the end. And also there's this matter of who would replace him. I mean it's a pretty thankless, terrible job. But Boehner has had harder jobs - like driving a bulldozer in Ohio in the winter.


GREENE: Interesting point. NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much for joining us. And also for all your reporting during this whole shutdown.

KEITH: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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