Spare a little sympathy, if you can, for
On paper, he's the most powerful Republican in the land. In practice, he's caught between a cliff and a ceiling as the uneasy chairman of an unhappy and fractious caucus.
For Boehner, the process was even more disastrous than the outcome. The speaker tried to negotiate a deal with the
And now he has to go through a similar process all over again when the federal government runs up against its debt ceiling next month.
It's no wonder that by Thursday, when Boehner was narrowly reelected as speaker over protest votes from disgruntled conservatives, the sour joke in the Capitol was that his caucus was punishing him for his failings by letting him keep his job.
Two years ago, when he first became speaker, Boehner wept with joy and awe. This year, he wept again, but that may have been out of relief that he needed only one round of votes to keep his job.
This wasn't how Boehner and his party wanted the new
As a result, there are now two Republican parties in the House: the conservative pragmatists (call them the Boehner Party) who think voters want them to negotiate and compromise, and the conservative hard-liners (led by Boehner's deputy,
That division is what produced last week's unusual bipartisan vote in favor of the fiscal cliff compromise, in which Boehner and 84 other Republicans joined 172 Democrats to make a majority, while Cantor and 150 other conservatives voted no.
That put the speaker in the uncomfortable position of voting against most of the members of his own caucus.
So why did they reelect him as their leader?
"You don't change coaches in the middle of the playoffs, even if the coach isn't running the team the way you'd like," explained Rep.
Still, Boehner faces two problems in the new Congress: His GOP majority is smaller than it was last year because of the loss of nine seats in November. And it's also more conservative, since many of the members who left were moderates.
Of 233 Republicans in the new House, only 15 — fewer than 7% — come from districts that Obama carried in the
That could bode ill for the coming fight over the debt ceiling.
For one thing, Republicans are in even less of a mood for compromise because they think they have more leverage this time. Instead of defending the wealthy against tax hikes, they'll be championing cuts in federal spending, a more popular idea (at least in the abstract).
"I hope the speaker understands that he really can't compromise that way again," Campbell said. "He has to take a harder line…. But we're going on faith. There have been no commitments."
Can the House GOP stay together this time?
Just as in the fight over the fiscal cliff, when automatic tax increases were the price of failure, there will be warnings of economic disaster in this fight too: a government shutdown, defaulted Treasury bills and chaos in the markets.
And White House aides have almost openly proclaimed a goal of repeating the pattern of dividing Boehner's caucus in two.
It's too early to predict how the next fight will turn out, but a few forecasts are safe. We will see another bout of political brinkmanship, with plenty of nail-biting right up to the deadline. It won't likely produce a "grand bargain" that thoroughly reforms the big entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And Boehner won't be the man leading negotiations with the Democrats. He says he's through trying to make deals with Obama; it's brought him nothing but grief. He's going to concentrate on holding his party together in a challenging time.
Boehner has the job he always wanted. But it came without a guarantee that he's going to enjoy it much.