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John Boehner’s leadership style had a price in rebellion over tax cut

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When he announced his first major piece of legislation in early February, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also faced his first rebellion. The government funding bill did not cut enough spending, rank-and-file Republicans protested, with the enormous freshman class leading the revolt.

Rather than tamp down the complaints, Boehner ordered his lieutenants to rewrite the bill. It’s an exercise that Boehner has repeated throughout his first year holding the speaker’s gavel as he set out to be a different kind of speaker, a true consensus-builder.

This style has won Boehner strong reviews from many GOP freshmen, as well as senior lawmakers who chafed under the strong-arm tactics of the previous leadership teams. Yet his kid-gloves approach has also led to perilous moments in which Boehner appeared to have no control over the House.

The past week brought the latest example of this dynamic when Boehner yielded to an uprising against the bipartisan Senate deal to extend by two months a popular payroll tax holiday and an extension of unemployment benefits. His rank-and-file Republicans demanded a full-year plan, risking the tax benefit expiring in January as a chorus of other Republicans and conservative figures warned that their party would get blamed for a tax hike.

Boehner threw in the towel Thursday and agreed to a two-month extension.

During a conference call Thursday afternoon, five days after the initial insurrection, Boehner left no chance for further revolt. The call was brief. Only Boehner spoke about the deal. He allowed no other lawmakers to add their voices, finally adopting a forceful tone that has been largely absent for most of the year. “This may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world, but I’m going to tell you what, I think our members waged a good fight,” he told reporters after the call.

This is a predicament largely of Boehner’s own making. He wants to be liked — not feared.

In his view, committee chairmen were supposed to be empowered, floor debates were supposed to be longer, with amendments flowing from both sides of the aisle, and inside his Republican Conference, the leaders would listen to the rank and file. “If there’s a more open process, and members are allowed to participate, guess what? It lets the steam out of the place,” he said in a September 2010 speech.

Boehner has lived up to some of his commitments — the committee process is still a work in progress — and that has earned him a wellspring of respect in some corners, no matter how messy the process sometimes appears. “They don’t come and say, ‘This is how it’s going to happen,’ ” freshman Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) said admiringly of Boehner’s leadership team. “It’s really the people’s House working now.”

President Obama grew publicly furious with Boehner over the summer when the two men tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” on the federal government’s swelling debt problem, after the speaker twice walked away amid accusations from Obama that Boehner could not get a bill passed in his chamber.

“I think he’s one of the weakest speakers in living memory,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a onetime congressional staffer now serving his third term.

Sometimes the rebellions have strengthened Boehner’s hand, setting the terms of negotiation with the Senate further to the right.

That’s what happened in February. The House rank and file forced more conservative legislation and Boehner wrung $38 billion in spending cuts from 2011 agency budgets after weeks of talks with Obama.

This week, Boehner sat isolated as never before. His staunchest ally, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), returned home to Louisville and stayed silent after House Republicans rejected the deal that McConnell negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

McConnell left a meeting in Boehner’s office last Friday believing the House could pass the bill, leading to an overwhelming 89 votes of support in the Senate on Saturday.

About six hours after that vote, Boehner convened a conference call with House Republicans and created the impression in some minds that he supported the Senate bill.

One by one, rank-and-file Republicans pressed “#1” to weigh in, denouncing the plan. No one tried to force the lawmakers to support the measure for the good of the Republican Party.

“That conversation has never been had, at least I can speak personally. There’s never been a time when I’ve had a conversation with someone who said, ‘We have to do this for politics,’ ” said Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.), a former nurse elected in 2010.

The leadership team held a meeting in the Capitol basement Monday night to outline its plans, which included late-night votes that would include a formal rejection of the Senate bill. That wasn’t good enough.

In a raucous two-hour meeting, the Republicans protested holding the vote late at night and declared that they did not want to vote against the Senate bill but preferred to vote for something.

Once again, Boehner gave in. On Tuesday, just past noon, the House voted on a complicated procedure that rejected the two-month extension and requested a formal conference committee with the Senate to negotiate a long-term plan.

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