Boehner: Dealmaker and Survivor in Tight Spot

Associated Press and CNBC
John Boehner
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call Group | Getty Images

It's been just a month on the calendar but seemingly a lifetime in politics since House Speaker John Boehner got a pricey bottle of red wine from President Barack Obama as a birthday present, a feel-good image that the speaker's aides tweeted far and wide.

The 63-year-old Ohio Republican has been caught up ever since in a monumental struggle over taxes and spending aimed at keeping the country from taking a year-end dive over the "fiscal cliff." Obama is tugging Boehner one way in pursuit of a budget deal, while conservatives yank the other way, some howling that he's already going wobbly on them and turning vindictive against those in his party who dare disagree.

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Altogether, it's been more bar-room brawl than friendly wine-tasting for Boehner, whose job as speaker is at stake right along with the nation's economic future.

With Obama's re-election giving Democrats more leverage over Republicans, and far-right critics pushing a "FireBoehner" hashtag on Twitter, Boehner is in an incredibly tight spot.

To which the undaunted speaker responds: "I remain the most optimistic person in this town."

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In truth, there aren't too many Democrats lining up to buy Boehner wine, or too many Republicans advocating his dismissal.

The baritone-voiced Boehner has a reputation as a deal-maker and a survivor. At least within his own party, he may be in a better place now than he was during a rough first two years as speaker that produced few solid accomplishments, pushed big budget decisions down the road and saw already-low congressional approval ratings sink even further.

The election that felled presidential nominee Mitt Romney, thrashed Senate Republicans and narrowed the GOP majority in the House also rid some of the loudest tea party voices in Boehner's fractious caucus and gave pause to other Republican legislators who felt their speaker had been too accommodating of Democrats in 2011 debt negotiations. Those talks collapsed at the 11th hour.

Now Obama and Boehner are right back at it, negotiating in person, by phone and by intermediaries, as they trade offers and counteroffers over huge questions about tax rates and spending. Obama wants more tax revenue, Boehner more spending cuts.

Questions about how far Boehner can be pushed, and at what personal price, are swirling everywhere from the Oval Office and the Capitol rotunda to late-night television.

"Saturday Night Live" played Boehner for laughs in a recent skit showing Obama defending a despondent speaker with a perpetual tan against Republican bullies who made him sit alone in the House cafeteria and threw his milk in the garbage. "You leave this poor orange man alone!" the stand-in president said.

Boehner may well be known for his tan, and for tearing up easily, but he's no pushover, says Alan Simpson, a Republican who was co-chairman of the president's deficit commission.

"He's strong and he's used to taking a lot of crap," says Simpson. "Once you're in that situation, you're going to work your way through."

Ron Peters, a University of Oklahoma professor who's written extensively about House speakers, says the fate of the talks may come down to Boehner asking himself, "as all speakers do: What do I want to be remembered for?"

"He's in a position to do something historic," says Peters. "And so what he needs to do is lead the Republicans through the process to get the deal that will become a legacy."

It's a huge moment for a speaker who grew up as one of 12 children in a working-class family in suburban Cincinnati, helping out in his father's bar. That upbringing taught Boehner important skills for managing his raucous Republican fold, including an often under-rated ability simply to let people vent.

"He does not treat information as a commodity to be guarded against," says GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide. "He is not somebody who is caught by surprise, because he goes through the painstaking process of making sure he's listening to all of his members."

Boehner's getting an earful these days, intelligence that helps to inform his negotiations.

Obama drew a colorful sketch of his negotiating partner during the 2011 budget talks, as quoted by author Bob Woodward: "He's a golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, country-club Republican who's there to make deals."

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Boehner helped fill out that portrait as he described the scene at one of their negotiating sessions.

"All you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I'm sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking merlot, and I look across the table and here is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette," he told Woodward.

Beyond golf, the two "really don't have a whole lot in common," says Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a friend of the speaker.

"Boehner loves to tell stories about growing up in a bar," says LaTourette. "He really is a self-made guy, and the president is a professor. And that's a little bit like oil and water in terms of being best buds. But they don't have to be best buds."

LaTourette says Boehner has been managing the pressure with his trademark even temperament.

"He still gets out and gets his exercise; he'll still like to get a glass of wine in the evening," says LaTourette. "If he's all tied up in knots and tense, it has to be way deep inside him because you don't see it on the surface. It's true, he doesn't even cry as much anymore."

Boehner has taken a ribbing for years about his penchant for choking up over big moments, little kids and just about anything in between.

In return, the smartly dressed speaker likes to tease colleagues and reporters alike about their sartorial shortcomings.

"Tie's a little long today, isn't it?" he deadpanned to one reporter as he walked through the Capitol on Wednesday.

Terry Holt, a former Boehner aide who remains close to the speaker, said Boehner leads a conservative caucus, "but it's one that has learned a thing or two since he became speaker. They've matured -- and Boehner has matured along with them."

For one thing, Boehner has taken pains to present a more unified front with his fellow House GOP leaders in the current debt talks, after constant speculation over the previous two years that ambitious underlings were angling to replace him. A recent letter to Obama that signaled a willingness to raise more revenue as part of the budget deal was notably also signed by six other House GOP leaders.

A favorite maxim that Boehner likes to recite helps to capture the speaker's approach, and his challenge: "A leader without followers is just a man out for a walk."

Boehner, who lives in a basement apartment in Washington while his wife stays in Ohio, is putting in longer hours these days but still keeps largely to his usual routine. He's up early to check news sites and perhaps get in a walk before breakfast at a diner, then on to Capitol Hill by 9 a.m. He's typically in bed by 10 p.m.

He doesn't hang out in the lobby off the House floor, smoking and kibitzing as he did before becoming speaker.

"The quality of life is not like it was before he was speaker," says Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, a longtime friend of the speaker. "He doesn't play golf as much. He travels and helps members. I wouldn't say it's a very fun job."

Boehner still shows flashes of his dry humor, though.

He drew laughs for dishing off a rhyming dodge to reporters Thursday when asked if he would allow separate votes on middle-income tax rates and rates for the wealthy

"Ifs, ands and buts are like candy and nuts," he said. "If that's the case, every day would be Christmas."

Presiding over the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, Boehner took time to fuss over the optics of his photo op with a Colorado high school student invited to turn on the lights.

"Now here, button your coat, button your coat, c'mon," he gently admonished Ryan Shuster of Colorado Springs. "Ryan, pictures last forever, OK?"

The speaker, who ran a plastics and packaging business before his life in politics, is known for his down-to-earth descriptions of the dynamics on Capitol Hill.

Speaking about the difficulties of leading his diverse caucus, he once explained: "It's hard to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed," referring to the number of votes needed to approve legislation.

Differing with Democrats over tax legislation, he let loose with this one in 2010: "I'm trying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver going on today as chicken crap, all right?"

Boehner, pronounced BAY-nur, took a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again route to the top in the House.

Elected to Congress in 1990, he cut his teeth as part of the freshman "Gang of Seven," Republican upstarts who challenged the status quo. He got his first leadership job in 1995, got pushed out following GOP election defeats in 1998, and staged a comeback eight years later, after Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was indicted for political money laundering.

In his eight years between leadership jobs, Boehner hunkered down and proved himself to be an effective committee chairman and a pragmatic conservative who could work well with Democrats, pivotal to passage of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill.

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"I feel like the dog who caught the car," Boehner said when he returned to GOP leadership.

He caught it again two years ago, when Republicans reclaimed control of the House in 2010, then elected him speaker.

Boehner's frequent travel and work on behalf of fellow House Republicans in the run-up to the 2012 elections are one reason that losses in the House were minimized and loyalty to the speaker maximized. He raised more than $97 million for Republicans running for Congress, traveling almost nonstop for the last 45 days leading up to elections.

"From the perspective of the House members, they feel like they've gone through a pretty rough battle and they've survived, and that gives Boehner a lot more credibility," says John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide.

Boehner, typically seen more as sheep-herder than arm-twister, has used that credibility to flex more muscle.

His leadership team this month ousted four outspoken legislators from sought-after committee assignments. The unexpected move prompted cries from the far right of a conservative purge meant to silence the speaker's critics, a notion that Boehner's office rejected.

"You're beginning to see visible manifestations of his increased position of strength inside the conference," says Peters. "The far right of his party doesn't have as much leverage on him as it had before."

They're far from quiet, though.

At a recent "Conversations with Conservatives" event on Capitol Hill, legislators alternated between expressing sympathy for Boehner's tough job and accusing him of botching it.

"I appreciate the speaker, and he's in a tough position -- but look, who caused his position?" asked Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana.

"If there's any blame to be placed, it's squarely on his shoulders."

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, still seething over losing a plum committee seat, said if Boehner wants to visit his district, "he's not going to be met with very much welcome."

"I spent a lot of time saying stuff about, `Speaker Boehner's doing the best job he can do.' I did that for a year, a year and a half," Amash said. "We're not doing the best job we can do. ... We can do a lot better."

The conservative griping and uncertainty about the debt talks have raised speculation that Boehner could face a challenge in January's leadership elections. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Boehner may be trying to string along the debt talks until after the Jan. 3 vote.

Boehner insists he's not worried about his position, but rather about "doing the right thing for my kids and grandkids."

The big question is whether Boehner's caucus will back him if he and Obama craft a "grand bargain" to reduce the federal deficit that includes more new revenues than many Republicans can stomach.

"I just think he needs to negotiate the best deal possible that actually comports with our principles," says Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "There are some deals that will be bad for all of us, and there are some deals that maybe I can't support but they're the best deals that he can get."

Boehner's supporters think that if it comes down to a choice between his job and a deal that puts the country on a better economic path, the speaker would choose the latter.

"I don't think he's here to do small things," says Feehery. "One thing that you understand when you have the speaker's job is that you're not going to hold this forever."

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