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.