WASHINGTON — John Boehner has spent the last month tightening his grip on power, silencing Republican opponents and emerging as the unquestioned voice of his party.
Whether that’ll be enough to get a “fiscal cliff” deal with President Barack Obama – and whether that deal preserves his newfound stature among the party faithful – is still an open question.
This much is clear: Boehner is no longer the speaker whom America saw during his first two years at the helm of the House of Representatives, when the Ohio Republican often seemed a captive of the hard-right conservative rank and file.
Today, Boehner, 63, is ascendant among his party peers, talking compromise and hardball at the same time, as he negotiates alone with Obama.
Boehner faces daunting hurdles before completing a deal on taxes and federal spending and then making sure that deal doesn’t erode his support among the Republican hard core that’s been firmly opposed to any higher taxes. So while he engages in the private talks, Boehner also offers proposals such as Tuesday’s, describing to fellow Republicans a “Plan B” that would impose higher taxes on millionaires, a plan that the White House quickly and soundly rejected.
Complicating Boehner’s task is that Obama appears to have most of the leverage. If the president does nothing, and the Bush-era income tax rates expire at the end of this year, Democrats get the higher taxes on the wealthy Obama seeks. He also can argue that he was ready to preserve the current rates for everyone else but Republicans wouldn’t compromise.
“Republicans want Obama to do things he’s opposed to doing. Boehner is in a pretty untenable position,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at Washington’s Brookings institution. “Obama’s in a much better position.”
In the meantime, Boehner, who wouldn’t agree to be interviewed for this story, is rising in Republican circles, thanks largely to the fallout from the Nov. 6 elections. The relentless, bitterly partisan Republican push to win the White House and a Senate majority didn’t succeed. The conservative tea party movement, which helped Republicans win a House majority in 2010 – a group whose rigid style of legislating Boehner has never been comfortable with – was less successful this time.
The day after the election, Boehner moved fast. That afternoon, he announced that Republicans were ready to discuss raising more revenue, heretofore a subject that would have drawn instant cries of outrage from conservatives. This time, virtually no one protested
It also quickly became clear that unlike the 2011 debt-limit talks, which often included several White House officials and congressional leaders, this year’s negotiations would involve only Boehner and Obama. Soon afterward, lawmakers who are close to Boehner, notably Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., signaled that some Republicans could accept higher tax rates on the wealthy.
While all these moves give Boehner a stronger mandate at the moment, he still occupies shaky ground. Raising any kind of taxes remains unpopular among many House Republicans.
“Internally, there has been a hue and cry about this,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the vice chairman of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.
Boehner knows he has to be careful, and his utterances on taxes require almost Talmudic-like interpretation. On Dec. 7, he wouldn’t rule out higher taxes when he was asked about the topic at a news conference. A few hours later, he reiterated that he still opposed higher rates.
Translation: Boehner could accept the higher rates as part of a broad deal, but he wouldn’t like it.
Tuesday, he told a closed-door meeting of House Republicans that the time had come for a Plan B on taxes. But there were also assurances that the negotiations with Obama would continue. The meaning: I’m ready to play hardball, but I’m also ready to deal.
What’s most striking about all the maneuvering is the lack of much public anger from the Republican hard core. “Republicans got the message emphatically on Election Day,” explained Joe Brettell, a Republican strategist and former House staff member. Voters want lawmakers to stop bickering and work together.
Republicans, though, also have warmed to the collegial style of this bar owner’s son. Boehner, who can make an R-rated joke about how people mispronounced his name when he first ran for office, has an easy way with people.
Republicans think the speaker made a good-faith effort to give some ground to Obama, but has gotten nothing in return. Instead, they see the president taking trips and promoting his view as though the campaign never ended, a tactic that some Republicans find deeply offensive.
“We share a common view. This is a president who’s not reaching out,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
Boehner’s newfound clout also comes from experience. “When you’re speaker for a second time, you learn how to consolidate power,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
Boehner’s favorite for the fourth-ranking House leadership spot, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., easily defeated conservative choice Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. Price made some rumblings about challenging Boehner for speaker, but he’s since realized he doesn’t have the votes.
Boehner sent his strongest message that he’s in charge on Dec. 3, when his team ousted four Republicans from prized committee spots, saying they hadn’t been loyal enough to Republican causes. While the four responded angrily, and conservative interest groups warned that they wouldn’t forget, there was little outcry among the rank and file.
Boehner was doing what speakers often do. Because of House rules that give the majority virtually all the power, his chief political mission is to get firm control of his troops. That’s particularly important as Washington moves into 2013, when Obama will claim a fresh mandate.
But first, Boehner has to keep Republicans together on “fiscal cliff” policy.
Including a lot more revenue is likely to lose the speaker 90-odd conservatives, so he must fashion a package that at least gets a majority of the House’s 241 Republicans, or face new questions about his leadership.
Boehner says he’s unworried. Asked this week whether he’s fretting about falling from power, his face tightened and his tone was firm and confident.
“I’m not concerned about my job as speaker,” Boehner said.