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John Boehner: Rock or Rolled?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Canny House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier went out of his way to remind me and my audience this week that House Speaker John Boehner was a "devout Roman Catholic." I hadn't forgotten that --indeed I think it is the key to understanding the Ohio Congressman who is third in line to the presidency-- but it was an interesting thing for the Rules Chairman to bring up as he explained the GOP's position in the budget endgame unfolding on the final 2011 appropriations bill. If the Speaker had himself referenced his faith in a conversation with the caucus on one of the four key "riders" --this one to completely defund Planned Parenthood of tax-payer dollars-- that is the sort of statement that his closest colleagues could easily carry on to various platforms.

One of the few among the senior leadership who has been willing to repeatedly defend the House Leadership over the past two months, Dreier has been dutifully pushing the caucus' attempt to argue that the cuts thus far have been the largest in history (they are but they are puny in relation to the problem) and that the most important battle is over the FY 2012 budget not the half year of spending left in 2011. Dreier knows, however, that conservative activists and Tea party volunteers are in no mood to be told to wait until the fall for another showdown over spending. Indeed the entire GOP leadership from the Speaker down knows this, which is why the next ten days will be so revealing about the next ten months and indeed ten years. If the Speaker cannot claim any sort of serious victory now, it will be hard for the base that empowered the Republicans to believe he will ever fight to win later.

I discussed this key strategic moment with columnist-to-the-world Mark Steyn on Thursday's radio show:

HH: Let me play a "what if" with you, Mark Steyn. I have been indicating, if they stopped Obamacare by putting a freeze on the regs, if they stopped the EPA carbon by getting a rider, if they defunded CPB and they defunded Planned Parenthood, okay, then I could live with $45 billion in cuts. I could say okay, you had to give up something. But I don’t think they’re going to get anything. Is there a mix in there that you would be satisfied was a tactically decent answer as they postpone the big fight to 2012?

MS: Yeah, I think that’s the good way to look at it, that if your argument is that 2012 is the big battle, then what you need to do now is lay out some markers that make claim to principles for 2012.

HH: Exactly.

MS: For example, your EPA suggestion is a good one, because one of the things the Republicans ought to be fundamentally committed to is the restoration of responsible government in this republic, where laws are made by legislators accountable to citizens, which means we roll back regulation, and we constrain agencies who have grown far too used to legislating on their own, regardless of how the legislature votes, or how the voters vote. And so something like that actually lays down, it’s not important, particularly, in terms of the budget for 2011, but it lays down a marker. It says that this is who we are as a party. We believe in responsible government, we believe in a land where the laws are made by legislators accountable to the citizens. And that, things like that are worth doing, and they’re worth compromising on $10 or $15 billion, or whatever here and there, but they’ve got to be talking in those, they’ve got to be framing the debate in those terms. Otherwise, it’s just the usual nickel and dime, Washington deal-making, reach across the aisle-y stuff that everybody loathes. Everybody loathes.

HH: And I do not, correct me if you’ve heard someone talking in those terms. I have yet to hear any Republican leader talk in those terms of markers and principle.

MS: No, and I think that’s because, I think regulation is throttling this country. Regulation is killing this country. Regulation is ensuring that as such economic prosperity survives on this planet will be created elsewhere. And the Republican party ought to be on the side of that. That’s nothing to do with taking social issues off the table, and not wanting to go into any of those awkward subjects that embarrass these sophisticated Beltway types. That is fundamental to retaining America’s competitive advantage in the world. And if Republicans, if even the squishiest, RINO, jelly-spine nothing can’t actually stand up for rolling back the regulatory state, then he is entirely worthless.

(The entire transcript of our conversation is here, and Mark's website is here. Steyn is easily one of the two or three most influential conservative commentators at work today. If Politico wanted to repair the brand damage it has inflicted on itself by promoting Joe Scarborough as its house conservative while beating the Obama line daily in two-thirds of its stories while beating up the GOP in the other third, inking Steyn to its front page would be the shrewdest move it could make.)

Steyn as usual has it exactly right. The MSM is focusing on the "number," whether it is $30 billion or $33 billion or $61 billion, but the number has been largely irrelevant since the first retreat the GOP sounded early this year. The cuts have already disappointed, so the Speaker will not regain or hold ground with the base by virtue of he number he comes away with.

This is now about the riders, about the principles for which he was willing to fight and for, as Steyn puts it, the markers he lays down about what sort of federal government the new House majority envisions and, crucially, what the new House majority deems worth fighting for.

Congressman Mike Pence says it is time to pick a fight. He is right, and the conservative movement is waiting to see if they have a fighter leading the Congressional party. Boehner is supposed to be the tough Catholic kid from southern Ohio who sharpened his elbows among all those brothers and who survived a knock down in the House to rise again. "Don't be misled by the tan and the ties," I have been told again and again, "He's tough as nails."

Perhaps. The conservative faithful hopes so. But the time for the fight is right now, and not on whether it is $33 billion or $40 billion, and it is definitely not about whether the Beltway-Manhattan media elite applauds the final deal.

What matters is whether Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is stripped of all their taxpayer funding, and whether the EPA and HHS are instructed by Congress to stop spending money on new rules for implementing the regulation of carbon emissions and the roll-out of Obamacare. These are the key markers of resolve and of purposeful leadership, real deliverables on the promises made in the campaign of 2010.

The Speaker has a veto --a complete veto-- on any spending bill, and if he insists on these four key riders, he will either get them or the federal government will go into partial shutdown. If he wields the threat of that veto to bring home real wins, or fights to the point of stalemate and beyond for those goals, voters can have faith that the battles ahead are not already lost.

But if the Speaker sounds retreat now and tries to dress it up as a win, millions won't give him or the House GOP a second chance.

This moment is the House GOP's second chance.

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