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House Speaker John Boehner’s Big Blunder

If politicians know nothing else, they know they have to take care of their own. In his haste to get the fiscal cliff deal behind him, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) forgot all about that rule and it nearly cost him his leadership position.

As soon as the tax and spending bill got through both houses, Boehner ended the session, failing to take up an aid package passed by the Senate to provide more than $60 billion in aid to the states, especially New York and New Jersey, which were especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, Democrats – including President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – were quick to attack the decision, but Boehner took a major blast from a GOP heavy hitter.

Rep. Michael G. Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, threatened not to vote for Boehner in his bid to remain Speaker. Rep. Peter King of Long Island urged affluent Republican donors to withhold contributions.

“I’m saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds,” King told Fox News. “Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace.”

But the biggest blow came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who blasted Boehner and House Republicans for failing to meet “a basic test of public service” and blamed the Speaker for making the decision not to put the bill up for a vote. Christie said that once he became aware there would be no vote on the aid package that he reached out to Boehner, who refused to take Christie’s calls.

It was a major miscalculation for Boehner who, pundits said, may have felt he couldn’t ask party members in the House to vote on a spending bill after they held their noses and voted for a fiscal cliff deal they had derided for not doing enough to address spending issues.  He thought he could leave the vote for the new Congress to take up.

That bit of political byplay, however, explained “why the American people hate Congress,” Christie said.

It left Boehner in a weakened position as the vote came up Thursday to determine if he would remain House Speaker. He survived defections by several of the more conservative members of the party to win a second term in the leadership role.  He won the final vote 220 to 192. Combative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whom many thought might be Boehner’s biggest competition, received three votes.

According to The Washington Post, it was the closest any speaker had come to not securing a first-ballot victory since Newt Gingrich squeaked out a second term in 1997 after he was admonished on an ethics issue.

For the GOP, the House is no place for old-school Republicans. There is little inclination to compromise with one another, much less a Democratic administration. Boehner kept his job largely because no one with any political aspirations beyond the House wants to be in a position diluted by intraparty strife.

And it is unlikely to get any easier.

Next up on Congress’ agenda is the debt ceiling fight and Obama has already thrown down the gauntlet, saying he would not play political football with the issue, which he sees as separate and apart from spending cuts and entitlement reform. House Republicans are demanding that something be done before they get to the debt ceiling deadline.

The tough work on spending and reform was kicked down the road a bit, with those issues put off for two months. Boehner, who reportedly is a pragmatist by nature, believes in negotiation. The more conservative element of the House, particularly those in the tea party wing, tends to be more all-or-nothing legislators. Even if they get more than half of what they want in negotiations, they often reject the leadership because they haven’t gotten it all. They believe they have mandates from the voters in their districts to push for what they believe, even if they take down some of their constituents in the fight.

Boehner’s only hope is that the bipartisan majority that passed the fiscal cliff might begin to hold some sway in the new Congress.

That and taking care to include party movers and shakers in major decisions.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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