As House Republicans continue to sort out their midsession leadership shuffle, Washington, D.C., is bracing for a hectic and uncertain fall agenda made even more tumultuous by the impending departure of Speaker John Boehner.
Speaking on CBS’s "Face the Nation" yesterday, two days after he shocked the nation’s capital by announcing plans to step down as speaker and resign from Congress at the end of October, the Ohio Republican affirmed that he expects the House this week to pass a clean continuing resolution to fund the federal government with help from Democrats.
"I’m sure it will," Boehner said when asked if Democrats would have to help pass the stopgap funding bill. "But I expect my Democrat colleagues want to keep the government open as much as I do."
While Boehner’s decision to head for the exits likely averts a government shutdown when the fiscal year ends Wednesday, the speaker also hinted he’ll try to clear the legislative decks of some big-ticket items before he hands over the gavel and leaves Washington on Oct. 30.
"I expect that I might have a little more cooperation from some around town to try to get as much finished as possible," Boehner said. "I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn. I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there."
Freed from years of fighting with dozens of conservatives, the lame-duck speaker may be willing to cut deals with Democrats and the White House on issues that are favored by the business community but have stalled because of GOP hard-liners.
Agenda items that are rumored to be on Boehner’s bucket list include a highway funding bill, reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the politically treacherous debt limit increase that looms on the horizon.
Boehner ally Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) suggested yesterday that Boehner would be within his rights to negotiate with Democrats on policies strongly opposed on the right.
"Anything you want to get done in this period, as long as the president is a Democrat, as long as the Democrats have a filibuster control [in the Senate], everything is going to have to be some sort of compromise," Cole said on "Fox News Sunday." "Or you can do nothing. We can just simply wait and hope we win the next election."
But in a sign of the hurdles Boehner faces, Cole said he would oppose such talks to revive the Ex-Im Bank, which is strongly opposed by many conservatives.
"Ex-Im Bank, we just disagree, " Cole said. "I think, and, frankly, many House Republicans support that."
In the energy arena, Republican strategist Mike McKenna said the most direct effect of Boehner’s departure will be on the comprehensive energy package moving through the lower chamber.
Specifically, the amendment process to that bill, which is slated to be marked up by the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week (see related story), will probably become much more open. That complicates the prospects for a bill that Republicans have labored hard to keep bipartisan by splitting off more contentious issues.
"The immediate consequence of Boehner’s announcement is energy legislation probably becomes a lot more open in the House," he said. Without Boehner (or his staff) riding herd on the legislation, more amendments will come to the floor and more House members will take an aggressive approach, he predicted.
"That gets to be much more of a free-for-all," McKenna said. "There’s going to be a lot more amendments. Any member on the fence about how aggressive to be is now going to be more aggressive."
While senior Republicans and Democrats say they’re open to a legislative deal on energy that would further their priorities on both sides of the aisle, ClearView Energy Partners said the prospects of a legislative compromise may diminish in the post-Boehner era.
"Boehner was an able negotiator within his own party and also with the Senate and the White House, and he brought decades of legislative experience to the job," the firm said in a Friday analysis. "Boehner’s departure probably shifts the spotlight back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces no imminent reelection risk. That may not be enough to bridge differences sufficient to advance major legislation of any kind, however."
McKenna predicted that the longer-term effects of Boehner’s exit won’t be felt until after the 2016 elections, when new House members tap a new leader of the Energy and Commerce panel. Another issue to watch is whether the new speaker decides to revisit the split structure of the lower chamber’s energy portfolio — currently divided between the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees.
Up until that point, the new speaker of the House will be too swamped with tough election-year politics, including keeping the government open past the December expiration of the continuing resolution that’s expected to pass this week, not to mention the debt increase. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the odds-on favorite to replace Boehner in the top job, though Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), who ran as a conservative protest candidate against Boehner at the beginning of the year, is also running.
"The next speaker is going to inherit the shutdown, debt increase; it’s going to be a great big, giant mess," McKenna said. "If you’re conservative and want to do some damage to McCarthy, let him be speaker."
McCarthy on ‘inside track’
The campaigns for many leadership positions remain fluid, but Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), one of the dozens of intransigent House conservatives who call themselves the Freedom Caucus, acknowledged yesterday that McCarthy is likely to prevail as speaker.
"I think it’s fair to say that Kevin has the inside track for the position of being our leader and so forth," Mulvaney said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think the important question is, will things change? Will they change for the better or we simply replace Mr. Boehner with somebody else who [does] the same thing?"
Should McCarthy become speaker, it will cap a remarkable ascent for the 50-year-old Californian, who has served in the House for less than a decade.
McCarthy was elected to his Bakersfield-based district in 2006, after serving four years in the state Assembly. McCarthy quickly rose through the GOP leadership ranks to become chief deputy whip and later majority whip. He was elected majority leader last year, after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his re-election and resigned from Congress early.
As speaker, McCarthy could elevate hot-button issues in California, from the state’s historic drought to the controversial high-speed rail system being built between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
McCarthy and other California Republicans in the House oppose the high-speed rail line and have voted to strip the project’s federal funding. House Republicans and Democrats are also divided over legislation to address the drought in California and across the West.
"I think he’s made his position very clear on high-speed rail," Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who like McCarthy represents the Central Valley, said in a brief interview shortly after Boehner’s announcement Friday. "On water storage, it certainly elevates his position to negotiate on our behalf to get a real solution on not only a comprehensive water plan but more storage."
House Democrats said they were hopeful that McCarthy as speaker would also bring added attention to climate change, though they acknowledged McCarthy is far more conservative on the issue than Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D), the last Californian to hold the post.
"Anyone coming from California truly understands the extent of what climate change has done in terms of wildfire, sea-level rise [and] drought," Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) told E&E Daily.
"Just having someone who’s going through that would be very, very positive because it’s just so hard to get people to address these issues," Lowenthal added.
While a conservative outsider such as Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) could still emerge to challenge McCarthy to be speaker, the fight to become the next majority leader could be a fiercer contest.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington are already working to build support for the post. Both are members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Scalise has pushed for the oil and gas interests of his state and McMorris Rodgers has done the same for hydropower.
Should they end up as the top two House Republicans after the dust settles, McKenna speculated that McCarthy and Scalise would work out a way to "split the kingdom." And there could be differences for energy depending on who comes out on top.
Whereas McCarthy is not personally excited about energy issues, McKenna said Scalise is fluent on the subject and would be one of the most senior oil and gas friendly leaders that Republicans have had in a long time.
"[Scalise] is an energy guy; he’s got staff and former staff who are conversant; he wouldn’t need to hire somebody to tell him about the oil and gas industry," McKenna said, adding that he could be "a particularly powerful advocate for the industry."
However, there are other Republicans interested in the majority leader post who could be strong contenders, as well, including Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, Hensarling, and Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, who also hails from oil and gas rich Texas.
Yet some of those contenders are focused on first healing deep divides within the GOP.
Roskam in a letter to McMorris Rodgers this weekend said he was gathering signatures from 50 members to hold a special, one-hour conference meeting to discuss the party’s direction and friction that surfaced in light of Boehner’s announced departure.
"In this environment, I am not announcing a run for any leadership position because I currently don’t believe our Conference or our leadership can be successful until we confront the underlying issues that have led to this moment," Roskam wrote.
Boehner’s hands were tied
As for Boehner’s energy legacy, McKenna noted that the Ohioan’s hands were tied by a Democratic Senate and president for much of his tenure as speaker.
"The House passed a bunch of really good legislation, but a handful of Democratic senators really despise affordable and dependable energy," McKenna said. "And the Obama machine significantly complicated everything we did to expand and accommodate the oil and gas boom. So the legacy he left was pushing back against the administration."