Boehner steadies GOP team, reframes deficit debate
The concessions also seem to have put the speaker back on track for passing major bills with solid GOP majorities.
Early in January, Boehner twice had to abandon the "majority of the majority" rule that has guided House speakers for years. That rule says that whenever possible, a speaker wants to avoid passing major legislation that most of the speaker's party members oppose.
But unyielding Republicans forced Boehner's hand Jan. 1 on the fiscal cliff.
He had to rely chiefly on Democrats' votes to enact an Obama-backed budget deal to avoid a tax increase on most Americans and instead raise them for the more affluent. Two weeks later, Boehner again had to accept most Republicans' abandonment on a deficit-financed spending bill to help victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Perhaps Boehner's darkest moment came on Dec. 20, when conservative colleagues rejected his counteroffer to Obama's bid to raise taxes on the wealthy.
The setback not only embarrassed the speaker, but also forced him to the sidelines, requiring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to step in as the top GOP on the fiscal cliff.
Yet within four weeks, Boehner and his allies had vastly improved party discipline and coherence.
Boehner made his closing arguments at the party's annual mid-January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where reporters and other outsiders were mostly kept at bay.
A daylong session began with Boehner explaining what he saw as the financial and political "facts about the debt ceiling," a participant said. Next up were his top lieutenants, to amplify his remarks and discuss possible options: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's vice presidential nominee last year.
They left no doubt of the party hierarchy's allegiance to Boehner.
House Republicans agreed to postpone the debt-ceiling showdown for three months. That will let Congress deal first with two less dire issues in which Republicans feel they have more leverage: the scheduled start of big, across-the-board spending cuts and the need to approve funds to keep the government running another year.
"Everybody took a hard look at it and said we can't govern from the House of Representatives," said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. Rather than confront Obama "army to army," McKenna said, Republicans decided to "do a little more sniper action."
It's unclear how long the calm will last.
The 151 House Republicans who voted against the Boehner-backed fiscal cliff deal on Jan. 1 "will get tired of the incrementalism of the debt ceiling" issue, McKenna predicted. For now, however, he joins others in saluting Boehner's breakthrough.
The decision to put other deficit-reduction issues ahead of the debt ceiling decision, McKenna said, "is probably one of the most artful things the House Republicans have done in the last 12 years."
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