Boehner learned hard lesson in failed House coup

House Speaker John Boehner, then and now
House Speaker John Boehner, then and now

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Story highlights

  • House Speaker John Boehner originally didn't want to tie spending bill to Obamacare
  • Boehner was involved in failed coup when Newt Gingrich was speaker after last shutdown
  • In the aftermath of failed ouster of Gingrich, Boehner lost his leadership post
  • Boehner has learned lessons from that experience, former House leadership aide says

Two things motivate House Speaker John Boehner in his showdown with Democrats and President Barack Obama, sources close to him say -- one personal, one philosophical.

The personal one is evident through how he deals with his caucus of 232 Republicans, especially the unruly tea party group.

Boehner originally did not want to tie a contentious effort to defund Obamacare to spending legislation needed to avert a shutdown.

He expressed that sentiment as far back as March.

"Our goal here is to cut spending. It's not to shut down the government," Boehner said. "I believe that trying to put Obamacare on this vehicle risks shutting down the government. That's not what our goal is."

But ultimately, there were enough House Republicans demanding the two issues be linked that Boehner changed his mind. Why?

"He has been seen people rise and fall," a source close to him said.

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In fact, he was one of them.

When Boehner was House Republican Conference chairman, he was part of a small group of House Republican leaders who met in 1997 to discuss ousting their fellow Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich.

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The coup failed and Boehner claimed he was only gathering information, not conspiring. But by the next year, his fellow Republicans had ousted him from leadership.

Upon hearing the bad news, he told an aide, "We are going to smile, we are going to work hard, and earn our way back."

And he did just that -- from exile through various top positions on committees to the leadership of House Republicans and then his election as speaker.

"You could never have predicted in 1998 the recovery of John Boehner," said Gingrich, now a host of CNN's "Crossfire." "So I think first of all his discipline, his focus on getting the job done, being a very effective insider, raising resources, campaigning for members.

"He managed to recover, which is historically not abnormal -- Speaker Longworth had the same kind of experience, so it happens occasionally. But it takes an unusual amount of willpower to be defeated by your colleagues, and make a comeback with the same colleagues," Gingrich said.

The lesson learned?

Listen to party members and try to adapt to what they want -- sometimes leading them, sometimes following, sometimes protecting them from themselves, and sometimes -- as with the government shutdown -- letting them learn the lesson that if you touch a pot on a hot stove, you will get burned.

"When he was sworn in as speaker, he had 15 rebels vote against him on the House floor. He has this group of 30 to 40 hardcore conservatives who are more than willing to dump John Boehner any chance they can," said John Feehery, a consultant and former aide to Republican leaders.

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Congress still gets paid

"From Boehner's perspective, he's learned from what happened with Newt Gingrich. That's why he's more disciplined, listening more to his caucus, less likely to freelance than Newt was. Going through this process for him is more of a step-by-step process," Feehery said.

Not enough House Republicans yet see that this path is likely one that will hurt them politically. When that changes, Boehner will pursue a path out.

But he will not be exiled again.

"Listen. We've got a lot of divergent opinions in the caucus and the key to any leadership job is to listen," Boehner said two weeks ago. "You know, I was here during the Gingrich era. He had a little plaque that was in his office. And it was a management model: 'Listen, learn, help, and leave.' We listened to our colleagues over the course of the last week. We have a plan that they're happy with."

The philosophical part of this equation is Boehner's concern about the debt and his belief that Obama doesn't get it.

"The president told me in the Oval Office back in December, 'We don't have a spending problem, we have a health care problem,' Boehner said in an interview in late March. "And as long as the president continues to cling to the fact that we don't have a spending problem, and clings to the fact that we're not taxing the American people enough, it's going to make it hard to get to an agreement."

But it's not like the House Republicans' budget balances.

"Our budget is a vision of how we would go," Boehner said. "And clearly we believe that Obamacare is bad for the country, it's going to drive up the cost of health insurance for the American people. It's going to hurt employers building to hire more people. It's not in the nation's interest."

Democrats, Republicans and the insane leap into the abyss