WASHINGTON — When Republicans chose John A. Boehner as House speaker two years ago, the former plastics salesman who had served two decades in Congress finally had the job he wanted.
Trouble was, he couldn’t have picked a worse time.
That reality played out again late New Year’s Day, when Boehner suffered a stinging rebuke as his rambunctious tea-party-inspired majority — more conservative and less willing to compromise than he is — abandoned their leader on the “fiscal cliff” deal.
Boehner voted yes, but the majority of his majority, and even his top two lieutenants, voted no. If conventional wisdom held, the speaker’s tenure would be finished.
But Boehner is expected to be reelected Thursday by a still-rebellious Republican majority. Like the political disarray within the Republican Party nationally, the GOP ranks in the House are similarly divided. The lack of a challenger with a clear line of ascent all but ensures the Ohio Republican will keep his dream job.
Influential Republican activists agitate for change, and up-and-comers in Congress muse aloud about a run. Yet no one else in the House leadership, most notably the No. 2 Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia — Boehner’s strongest rival who split with him on the fiscal cliff vote — has stepped up.
Would-be challengers are reluctant to aim for the speaker’s job — and miss. Nor are they eager to take on a line of work that has proven as difficult as herding cats, keeping frogs in a wheelbarrow or, it has been said, assembling a nation out of a loose federation.
“Who wants his job right now?” said strategist Ron Bonjean, who was a top aide to an earlier GOP House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “No one wants to take his place.”
That is not to say the first vote in the new House, scheduled for about 1 p.m., will be without drama.
Nothing prevents a renegade Republican from putting forward another nominee, although whisperings that one was coming have all but subsided. Cantor, in fact, nominated Boehner during the party’s own vote last month. And even though Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said in a radio interview that the House needed conservative, “red state” leadership, he was not expected to volunteer.
Democrats will nominate one of their own, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who was the first female speaker. But they are the minority.
As the roll is called, Boehner may lose a handful, maybe a dozen, votes. Some Republicans may simply miss the vote or decline to cast one.
Pelosi endured 18 Democratic defectors the last time she was nominated.
“Members have to have serious guts to vote against the speaker when they go through and do the roll-call vote,” said one GOP aide, who asked not to be named to discuss internal party politics.
On the eve of the vote, aides could not help but notice that Boehner, after abruptly halting action on a bill to provide Superstorm Sandy disaster relief this week, promised a quick vote in the new Congress, shoring up the support of the New Jersey and New York delegations.
In many ways, Boehner represents a new type of House leadership, far different from the arm-twisting pols of an earlier time — or even the political force that was Pelosi.
More aligned with the Chamber of Commerce wing than the tea party, Boehner is not of the political generation that produced the majority he now leads, many of whom came in on the 2010 conservative wave.
The speaker’s job in the 113th Congress will come with similarly hard-right members, as newly safe GOP districts elected more partisan lawmakers in November.
The next two years are not likely to be much different for Boehner, whose struggles can be seen in the results. Almost every major measure — including raising the debt limit to avoid a catastrophic default and pulling the nation back from the fiscal cliff — needed Democrats to pass.
A slight cheer arose from the Pelosi side of the chamber Tuesday night as the votes clicked over the threshold to approve the fiscal cliff deal. Her power was on display.
Yet even as Boehner tries to lead his troops where they will not go, they stick with him.
Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, one of the more conservative members of the House, said he voted against the fiscal cliff deal to stop Obama’s “socialist” agenda, not to repudiate the speaker’s leadership.
“The only thing you can criticize Mr. Boehner for at this point is not being able to turn lead into gold,” Franks said.
Exhibiting a Sinatra-era cool, with his tailored suits, neatly barbered hair and smoke-filled office, Boehner is not easily rumpled by the raucous lawmakers he tries to lead.
The speaker may not be remembered as the most powerful, but as one who kept his power by diffusing it. Always, Boehner says, his goal is let the majority work its will.
After his plan to fix the fiscal cliff was rejected by his own ranks, Boehner explained the setback with what amounted to a shrug.
“It’s not the outcome that I wanted,” he said, “but that was the will of the House.”