Milbank: On Sandy, Boehner refuses to stir tempest in Tea Party

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

The end-of-term reviews of John Boehner's House speakership are in, and they aren't pretty.

"The conduct of the Republican leadership was disgraceful, it was indefensible and it was immoral."

"There was a betrayal."

"Disappointing and disgusting."

"It's inexcusable."

"Failed that most basic test of public service."

And this was coming from the Republicans.

The spark: Boehner's last-minute decision to let the 112th Congress fade into history without a vote on the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package. In a sense, this was an outrage, because such recovery bills traditionally pass without a fuss. But in another sense, it followed a familiar script: Tea Party Republicans balked at taking up the spending bill (it had enough votes to pass), and because the Tea Party rules the House GOP, Boehner obeyed.

The Sandy sidestep provided a perfect coda for the first two years of this Republican-controlled House, which only by a loose definition can still be called a legislative body. Lawmakers in both parties are congratulating themselves for passing a bill to avoid the "fiscal cliff," but they did little more than approve a short-term fix that postpones the standoff 60 days. Ominously, even this stopgap measure failed to win the votes of two-thirds of House Republicans, including top Boehner lieutenants Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, who preferred to risk economic calamity.

The House GOP's antics on the fiscal cliff leave little optimism that lawmakers will be reasonable when it comes to more substantial issues such as restructuring entitlements, rewriting the tax code and reducing the debt. The fury over the Sandy sidestep could be a sign, though, that even some House Republicans are tiring of the Tea Party's dominance of their caucus.

Various Republicans, mostly from the Sandy-soaked Northeast, went to the House floor Wednesday morning to join Democrats in denouncing Boehner's decision. First came Rep. Michael Grimm, whose New York district was pummeled by the storm. The GOP leadership's "error in judgment is going to cost, I think, the trust of the American people," he said. Offering a "heartfelt apology" to his constituents for the House's inaction, he warned that "to delay this vote even for another day is something that will resonate … with the American people for a long time."

GOP destroying itself

It certainly will resonate with voters in the Northeast, where Republicans such as Grimm are an endangered species. But even some from outside the region didn't like the message the party was sending. Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois — who, like Grimm, came to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010 — reminded his colleagues that although "the federal government should play as little role as possible in the lives of Americans, they do need to play a role." Dold, who lost his re-election bid, warned that "we're anchoring to the extremes as opposed to coming to the center."

Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, delivered the harshest denunciation of Boehner's leadership and of "a strain in the Republican Party," which, he said, has a bias against the Northeast. "I can't imagine that type of indifference, that type of disregard, that cavalier attitude being shown to any other part of the country," he said. Accusing Boehner of ignoring "real life-and-death situations," King thundered: "This should not be the Republican Party. This should not be the Republican leadership."

Off the floor, the furious lawmaker hinted in a CNN interview that he might bolt the GOP, saying that anyone in New York or New Jersey who gives money to the House Republican campaign effort "should have their head examined. … People in my party, they wonder why they're becoming a minority party," he continued. "They've written me off and they're going to have a hard time getting my vote."

A few more brave voices such as King's could save the party from itself.