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December 23, 2014

Farm Bill Failure Won’t Change Boehner’s Style

Speaker John A. Boehner plans to continue to allow freewheeling amendment debates on high-profile bills, despite last week’s farm bill meltdown.

The Ohio Republican’s leadership style has drawn plaudits from those who support a more collaborative legislative process in contrast to that of his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who brought predictability to floor consideration by frequently employing closed rules to clamp down on amendments on controversial bills. And while the farm bill’s failure caused plenty of heartburn for Republican leaders, Boehner has stuck by his vision for the chamber’s leadership, even though it poses some political risks.

“The speaker made it clear … that we were going to do things differently, and that meant we would occasionally lose bills, but that he was committed to an open process and making sure members of the House are legislators,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

The farm bill’s defeat showed the perils of allowing more than 100 amendments to come to the floor, many of which were made in order to appeal to the more conservative members of the Republican base and ultimately resulted in Democratic defections.

“The speaker chose to have a more open, honest and robust debate in the House than the former speaker,” a Republican leadership aide said, “and there are consequences of that decision, but it’s not one he has any regrets about.”

The risks of the strategy were clear: By giving conservatives votes on amendments without demanding their votes for the final bill in return, leadership risked the prospects of the overall measure. That’s a point Pelosi made in a post-vote news conference, when she dismissed the Republican leadership’s handling of the bill as “amateur hour.”

Even at the outset of the farm bill debate, while Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma said the House would “work its will,” Collin C. Peterson, the panel’s top Democrat, pleaded with his colleagues to keep the legislation bipartisan and “not stray too far from what was approved in committee.”

Ultimately, at least two amendments on the House floor with little chance of becoming law — one stripping the bill of the dairy supply management program, the other adding more stringent work requirements for the food stamp program – rankled Democrats. Only 24 backed final passage.

“They really poisoned the whole well for this bill,” one Democratic leadership aide said Monday of the Republicans. “They decided it was a good idea to do these stupid amendments.”

Republicans continued to blame Democrats Monday for failing to deliver promised votes, and they said Democrats knew in advance that the controversial amendments were coming. “There were no surprises” for Democrats, a Republican leadership aide said.

A GOP aide close to the process of bringing bills to the floor suggested that this was a “unique” piece of legislation and that Republicans “don’t run into this issue often.”

A senior Democratic Rules Committee aide agreed that the farm bill was an “anomaly” but wondered if Boehner’s process really is all that open: Since taking the speaker’s gavel, the Rules Committee aide said, Boehner has brought bills to the floor under closed rules 63 times.

Still, compared with Pelosi’s four years as speaker, Boehner has allowed for a considerably more open amendment process. He brings almost all appropriations bills to the floor with open rules, and he has allowed for a significant number of amendments under structured rules.

Pelosi’s strict control of the floor, the Republican leadership aide charged, “contributed quite directly to the loss of her majority.”

But Boehner’s foes in the minority don’t see a comparison. As Republicans point fingers at the Democrats for causing a typically bipartisan bill to fall through the partisan cracks, Democrats counter that Boehner must re-evaluate how he governs.

For one thing, Democratic leadership aides contend, he must stop catering to members in the far-right wing of his party who themselves are beholden to conservative advocacy groups such as the Club for Growth, which pledged to punish Republicans who voted for the farm bill.

“Your job as speaker is to shut stuff down that is not helpful,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., helped push Democrats over the edge when he came to the floor to speak in support of the work requirements amendment. Cantor, the Democratic aide said, might just as well have taken a back seat — or, better, fought back the amendment for the good of the broader bill.

Democrats also suggest Republicans should communicate better with them when it comes to whip counts; though GOP leaders said Peterson promised 40 to 75 votes from the Democratic side of the aisle, Democratic leaders contend they were never approached – and it is their job, not the ranking member’s — to count votes and deliver.

In the meantime, it’s not clear what comes next. Some say the farm bill could come back under a closed rule sheared of the controversial amendments, which Democrats would likely shepherd to passage to conference the bill with the Senate, which passed its iteration of the farm bill two weeks ago.

One thing’s for sure: The House is going to have to pass something. And with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisting Monday that the Senate would not agree to another short-term extension, there’s more drama to come.

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