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The War for the Soul of the Republican Party Continues

All of us at one time or another had a job that was, let’s say, less than fulfilling and that we dreamed of quitting. Hand-in-hand with that of course is how we would quit, thus inspiring many fantasies about telling off the boss, co-workers or interminable clients. Hollywood has provided great fodder for this – Jennifer Aniston in Office Space, Bill Murray in Stripes or Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire. One wonders if Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio-8) had similar whimsies last month as he announced his resignation both as Speaker and from his seat in Congress effective at the end of October. Likely not, as his announcement was characteristic of his usual professionalism and desire to put the institution he loves in front of his own needs. He seemed more inspired by the visit of Pope Francis than by visions of verbal comeuppance for those who made his life so difficult for the past several years.

As expected, Mr. Boehner’s resignation has created a chaotic environment as Republicans seek to fill the vacuum he will leave. The words had barely escaped the Speaker’s mouth when the jockeying began in earnest. (There were some signs it had begun even before). Initially, things played out as one would expect - nearly all of those currently in GOP leadership positions quickly announced their intention to move up the ladder. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.-23), the current Majority Leader was running for Speaker; Steve Scalise (R-La.-01), the current Whip was running for Majority Leader, and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.-10), the current Deputy Whip was running for Whip. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.-05), the current GOP Conference Chair and Luke Messer (R-Ind.-06) the current Policy Committee Chairman ultimately chose to remain in their respective positions. There were challengers outside of leadership for all of these positions, but at least in McCarthy’s case, the odds seemed to be in his favor.

Then, just one day before the vote to nominate the party’s candidate for Speaker, the ground shifted as the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), a group of about 40 very conservative members long displeased with existing leadership, announced their support not for Rep. McCarthy but for Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.-10), a freshman and favorite of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. While this was certainly not good news for Rep. McCarthy, no one – including members of the HFC – thought this would ultimately stop him from securing the Speakership. Apparently, Mr. McCarthy did not have that same confidence and he announced during the nominating meeting that he would not seek that office and would instead remain Majority Leader. He reportedly said that he was not the man to be the face of the party and wanted unified support within the party for whoever was the Speaker.  

In the words of the Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.-1), Mr. McCarthy’s announcement created “mayhem” in the caucus meeting. The news was apparently a surprise to literally everyone in the room, included Speaker Boehner who reportedly immediately postponed the Speaker nomination vote and left the room in a hurry. Since Mr. McCarthy is keeping his Majority Leader position, that freezes Rep. Scalise and Rep. McHenry in their current respective positions. It also ends the campaigns of all those members who were challenging them. Perhaps more importantly, it creates a free-for-all in selecting a new Speaker of the House. 

In addition to Rep. Webster, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah-3), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is also a candidate for Speaker. Whatever the odds were that either of them would win the nomination before, they have changed radically now. It’s almost certain that other candidates will enter the election, but there are also discussions within the caucus of a “caretaker” Speaker to take the party through the end of the year. For his part, Speaker Boehner has committed to remaining Speaker until the party finds a replacement for him. No one was prepared for both Mr. Boehner and Mr. McCarthy to take themselves out.

Mr. Boehner’s departure compiled with these late-breaking developments has serious implications for the legislative calendar this fall. In his last month on the job, Mr. Boehner pledged to “clean out the barn” for his successor. And since he no longer has to care about reelection to Congress or the Speakership, he can make deals with whomever he wants. In fact, negotiations are already underway on a two-year budget deal that could eliminate the prospect of government shutdowns until 2017. Further, the Treasury Department updated its forecast for the debt limit, now reaching it on November 5 which means a deal could and probably should be made while Mr. Boehner still holds the gavel and can negotiate with Democrats and the Administration more freely. Look for deals on both of those items before Boehner departs.

Other outstanding legislative items remain but will not be solved this month. A highway bill and tax extenders are two at the top of the list and must see some kind of action before Congress adjourns for the year. As usual, these will come down to dollars and cents. The least common denominator is likely in both cases. 

One legislative issue high on NAA’s priority list is nearly complete – negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and specifically the funding for the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). Recall that this subsidy for the housing costs of military personnel is critical to those NAA members who are partners in the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. Once again we managed to stave off deep cuts to the BAH and instead will see only a modest 1 percent reduction. This is not a perfect outcome but at least minimizes the damage. 

The x-factor with the NDAA is the President. He has stated that he will veto the bill as currently drafted. The Senate passed the compromise legislation with enough votes to override any veto, but it is unclear if the House has the votes to do the same. If the President does veto the bill and the Congress cannot override that veto then the bill will have to be changed. How the BAH fares under those circumstances is unclear. The great advocacy work of the NAA Privatized Military Committee members to get us to this point may be required again.

Things are getting really interesting in the Nation’s Capital. Stay tuned and keep warm. Winter is coming.