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.