87 Republicans joined 198 Democrats to support legislation to end the government shutdown and prevent a default on the national debt. This was the key vote to ending the standoff. The Senate and President Barack Obama had been ready to support this legislation from the beginning. But Speaker of the House John Boehner was reluctant to bring a bill to the floor that would rely on Democratic votes to pass. Speaker Boehner has relied on Democratic votes before, but only on a few occasions and usually as a last resort to end some kind of legislative crisis like the recent shutdown. Much more could be accomplished in Congress – and we could stop governing by crisis – if Speaker Boehner was willing to work with Democrats to govern.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Democratic votes are needed to pass legislation in the House, if that legislation has a chance of becoming law. The Senate is controlled by Democrats. President Barack Obama is a Democrat. Anything that will be acceptable to Democrats in the Senate and White House will probably be unacceptable to a large number of House Republicans. That’s reasonable enough – those House Republicans are very conservative, and there isn’t much they are going to agree on with Democrats. But when the most conservative House Republicans reject a deal with the Senate and President Obama, the only way to get anything passed is with support from House Democrats.
This problem is not unique to the current House of Representatives or Speaker Boehner. When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker in 2007, she faced a similar dilemma over the Iraq War. House Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi, strongly opposed the War in Iraq. But President George W. Bush refused to end the war.
Many House Democrats refused to support any war funding bill that did not bring the troops home, but President Bush vetoed an earlier funding bill with a strict timeline for withdrawal. In the end, Speaker Pelosi relied on Republican votes to pass the war funding bill. 86 Democrats joined 194 Republicans to support this (almost identical to the breakdown on the recent vote to end the shutdown, with the parties reversed). Most Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi herself, voted no. But this was the only way to pass a bill that would be signed by President Bush.
Any time there is a major standoff between President Obama and Congressional Republicans, this is how it will end. Lots of House Republicans will oppose the final deal, but enough Republicans will join Democrats to get it passed. And that legislative coalition could do much more than just end partisan standoffs. It could pass immigration reform. It could pass a farm bill. It might even be able to replace the damaging short-term spending cuts under sequestration with smarter long-term debt reduction.
The most conservative House Republicans will never support any of this. If Speaker Boehner is going to get anything done, he needs to realize that those ultra-conservatives are not his governing majority. Even if Speaker Boehner can pass legislation in the House with only Republican support, it won’t go anywhere. If House Democrats opposed it, then Senate Democrats and President Obama probably will too.
The truly governing majority in the House of Representatives is composed of less extreme Republicans and moderate Democrats. If Speaker Boehner can pass legislation from the bipartisan center of the House, there is a good chance that it will actually become law. As soon as Speaker Boehner decides to work with the whole House, instead of just his own political party, Washington will work a whole lot better.