Only three months ago, when he took the speaker's gavel from Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Boehner declared himself the leader of an unstoppable wave of conservatism. "The American people have spoken, and it's time for Washington to listen," he said.
Harry Reid over a short-term federal spending deal, Boehner sounds plaintive, not triumphant.
"We control one-half of one-third of the government," he told reporters on Thursday. "We can't impose our will on another body. We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to."
Last week, Boehner and Reid agreed to the core of a possible deal to avoid shutting down the federal government: a cut of $33 billion for the next five months.
That should count as a big victory for Boehner and other fiscal conservatives. It's a deeper cut than Boehner initially sought; two months ago, he would have settled for $32 billion. And it would be a huge cut for President Obama and other Democrats to swallow — $74 billion less than the White House's initial budget proposal.
But it's a cut that's unlikely to satisfy the House's big bloc of hard-line conservatives — and that's a problem for Boehner. So as soon as the outline of the deal was announced, the speaker had to assure his caucus that it wasn't yet a deal.
The toughest negotiations in Washington right now aren't between Republicans and Democrats; they're between pragmatic conservative Republicans like Boehner and radical conservative Republicans like Mike Pence of Indiana, who say they wouldn't mind shutting down the federal government if that might wring out a few billion more in savings.
"It's time to pick a fight!" Pence told a rain-chilled little rally of "tea party" activists across the street from the Capitol shortly after Boehner spoke Thursday. "If liberals in the Senate want to play political games … I say shut it down."
Boehner campaigned last year on a promise to cut $100 billion in federal spending, and so did most of the 87 freshman Republicans who gave him the majority. The problem is, the freshmen are treating it like a real promise. They don't want to have to tell their tea party constituents that they decided to compromise with Reid, a man conservatives loathe, and settle for only one-third of the cuts they promised.
Boehner can't count on Democrats to rescue him. Just down the hall, Pelosi, who points out that she never lost control of her caucus when she was speaker, is quietly enjoying the spectacle of her successor's discomfort. If the House fails to pass a spending bill because of conservative defections, Boehner's hold on his job could be fatally weakened. Two months ago, polls suggested that the public would blame both parties equally if the government shut down; now polls show that a larger number would blame Boehner and the GOP.
Even if the House and Senate compromise over short-term spending this week, it won't be a sign that the Republicans have turned pragmatic or that bipartisanship is back. It will mean only that Boehner has succeeded in postponing his crisis for another day by promising his hard-liners that he will fight for radical budget cuts when they find more favorable ground.
And there could still be a shutdown. Settling on $33 billion in cuts doesn't address the policy issues known as "riders" — Republican-sponsored measures to halt implementation of Obama's healthcare law, prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases, and bar federal money from going to Planned Parenthood. Senate Democrats have said that they're willing to compromise on money, but not on all those policies.
The underlying problem, of course, is polarization. A generation ago, conservatives and liberals called each other names over social issues like abortion or gay rights. But when their representatives came to Washington, they generally found ways to negotiate deals on federal taxes and spending. The debates were vigorous, to be sure, but — in part because each party still had centrists in the room — they often didn't turn bitter.
Now, though, perhaps because the tea party considers federal spending a matter of morality, the fiscal debate sounds more like those old social debates once did. Members of Congress who agree to cut less than $100 billion from a short-term spending bill will be accused — by people in their own party — of not loving their country.
Democrats aren't immune, either; many liberals are furious at Obama and Reid for compromising as much as they have. But their anger seems less intense than that of the conservatives, who came to Washington believing the 2010 election gave them a mandate to remake the government.
The result: At least until the election of 2012, we're in for a stretch of angry, unhappy politics on both sides of the aisle.