December 22, 2012

'Fiscal cliff' leaves Boehner a wounded speaker

By ALAN FRAM, The Associated Press

 

WASHINGTON — John Boehner is a bloodied House speaker following the startling setback that his own fractious Republican troops dealt him in their "fiscal cliff" struggle against President Barack Obama.

There's plenty of internal grumbling about the Ohio Republican, especially among conservatives, and lots of buzzing about whether his leadership post is in jeopardy. But it's uncertain whether any other House Republican has the broad appeal to seize the job from Boehner or whether his embarrassing inability to pass his own bill preventing tax increases on everyone but millionaires is enough to topple him.

"No one will be challenging John Boehner as speaker," predicted John Feehery, a consultant and former aide to House GOP leaders. "No one else can right now do the job of bringing everyone together" and unifying House Republicans.

The morning after he yanked the tax-cutting bill from the House floor to prevent certain defeat, Boehner told reporters he wasn't worried about losing his job when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3.

"They weren't taking that out on me," he said Friday of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers, who despite pleading from Boehner and his lieutenants were shy of providing the 217 votes needed for passage. "They were dealing with the perception that somebody might accuse them of raising taxes."

That "somebody" was a number of outside conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, which openly pressured lawmakers to reject Boehner's bill. Such organizations often oppose GOP lawmakers they consider too moderate and have been headaches for Boehner in the past.

This time, his retreat on the tax measure was an unmistakable blow to the clout of the 22-year House veteran known for an amiable style, a willingness to make deals and a perpetual tan.

Congressional leaders amass power partly by their ability to command votes, especially in showdowns. His failure to do so Thursday stands to weaken his muscle with Obama and among House Republicans.

"It's very hard for him to negotiate now," said Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political scientist, adding that it's premature to judge if Boehner's hold on the speakership is in peril. "No one can trust him because it's very hard for him to produce votes."

She said the loss weakens his ability to summon support in the future because "you know the last time he came to you like this, others didn't step in line."

Boehner, 63, faces unvarnished hostility from some conservatives.

"We clearly can't have a speaker operate well outside" what Republicans want to do, said freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

Huelskamp is one of four GOP lawmakers who lost prized committee assignments following previous clashes with party leaders. That punishment was an anomaly for Boehner, who is known more for friendly persuasion than arm-twisting.

He said Boehner's job would depend on whether the speaker is "willing to sit and listen to Republicans first, or march off" and negotiate with Obama.

Conservative Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said one of the tea party's lasting impacts would be if Boehner struggled to retain his speakership due to the fight over the fiscal cliff, which is the combination of deep tax increases and spending cuts that start in early January without a bipartisan deal to avert them.

"If there's a major defeat delivered here, it could make it tough on him," King said. "He's in a tough spot."

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