Despite outward statements of widespread support from his caucus after his re-election Thursday, Rep. John A. Boehner's speakership was hanging by a thread, within three votes of mandating a second ballot, largely because he allowed the "fiscal cliff" deal to go through the House. Mr. Boehner should receive a Profile in Courage award for saving the nation and his party from humiliation and fiscal chaos.
Mr. Boehner knew he had 50 to 70 members of the House Republican caucus -- largely Tea Party members -- who would accept no deal from President Obama that raised taxes on anyone. He had another 50 to 75 caucus members who would demand politically untenable, huge cuts in programs. With compromise nearly impossible by his own caucus -- the hoped-for "majority of the majority" -- Mr. Boehner still wanted the country not to fall off the fiscal cliff and shut down altogether or make guillotine-level cuts from "sequestration" -- automatic across-the-board cuts mandated to reduce the deficit -- that would have been triggered at the end of 2012.
At the risk of losing his own speakership, Mr. Boehner went the only way he could to save the country. First, after fashioning several deals his own party caucus would not accept (two "grand bargains" and a mini-bargain), he reluctantly agreed to bring the Senate's legislation to the House floor. As Mr. Boehner walked the hall outside the House chamber on New Year's Day, his expression was reminiscent of the famous frown of 2nd-place Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, a knowing statement of the situation that he earlier in the week said "God only knows" how to resolve.
The vote for the solution to avert the fiscal cliff was 257-167. Allowing a victory -- despite losing his own party by a vote of 85-151, with the difference made up by Democrats (172-16) -- was an act of statesmanship to save the country, for which his own caucus should commend him. Uniquely for a speaker, he even voted "aye" to send the message of the importance of the legislation -- while his No. 2 and No. 3 -- Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy -- each voted "nay."
Despite the Senate's 89-8 cliff vote early New Year's Day, the issue was up in the air again later in the day when Mr. Cantor told CNN, "I do not support the bill." The nation thought that once more, we would be at the precipice, and the world again would laugh collectively at U.S. governance as it did during the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011. This time, though, Mr. Boehner would not let it happen. He had met repeatedly in good faith with the president to avoid just such a crisis, and he brought up the bill for an up-or-down vote because he knew it could pass with a majority of the full House.
Mr. Boehner joined the legacy of national leaders who transcended party. President Clinton got the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in November 1993 with a majority of the 234 affirmative votes coming from Republicans (132), and he got enough Democrats (102) to seal the deal. Likewise, President Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with a higher percentage of House Republicans than Democrats voting for it (Republicans: 138-34; Democrats 152-96).
Others also played key roles in passage of the bill to avoid the fiscal cliff -- House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Policy Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer for suggesting income levels over Mr. Obama's proposed $250,000 that could be used for the tax increases, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for negotiating the final Senate deal that they sent to the House.
However, the nation should recognize that in this moment of history, Mr. Boehner met the test, sacrificing his own political perspective for the good of the nation. Mrs. Pelosi said Thursday that "Speaker Boehner is a leader who has earned the confidence of both sides of the aisle." Mr. Boehner showed his caucus how to govern. Hopefully, the precedent will apply to other critical votes as well, such as the deadline on the debt ceiling in less than two months, immigration, tax reform and dealing with gun violence. All must hope that reports Mr. Boehner no longer will "negotiate with the president" are simply posturing. He can allow several testy votes to show he is a Republican when needed. Yet when it comes to the survival of the economy and our national reputation, Mr. Boehner, this time, demonstrated courage and statesmanship.
Robert Weiner is a national Democratic strategist, a former White House spokesman and a former senior congressional staff member. Richard Mann is senior policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates.