At key moments, rebellious conservatives simply deserted a speaker they liked, but did not fear.
Now, Boehner will probably face another test on the way to a resolution of the “fiscal cliff.” If leaders in the Senate strike a deal to end the current crisis, the speaker would then be required to get it through the House dominated by his skeptical caucus.
That drama would play out in just the next few days, but its outcome could shape Washington politics for the next two years. If Boehner cannot bend the House to his will, he might lose his speaker’s gavel. Or Boehner might keep his job, but lose even more leverage and stature in Washington — if his Republican members are blamed for bringing on an economic disaster.
“Boehner’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), one of Boehner’s closest allies in Congress. He meant Boehner’s lenient ways of leading — a contrast with the high-control leaders who preceded him, including former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“She got out there and broke arms and got it done. Boehner has not been willing to do that. I give him high marks for that,” LaTourette said. “But it’s not a very effective way to do business.”
On Saturday, party leaders in the Senate were still trying to find a deal that would cancel — or at least delay — the big tax hikes and painful spending cuts expected to take effect in a few days.
Boehner waited, in a sidelined role that underscored his diminished power. When the year’s biggest deal is struck, it appears, the House speaker will not be in the room.
“The only commitment we’ve made to the president and [Senate Majority Leader Harry M.] Reid is, whatever you pass, we will bring to the floor — either to amend, or accept,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said Saturday.
That House vote might happen Sunday, Monday or even Tuesday.
There is one way that this could all turn out well for Boehner.
That would be if the Democrat-controlled Senate somehow agrees to a deal that 100 or more House Republicans could also support. Then Boehner could fulfill a key pledge to his members: He said he was not interested in passing any bill that would pass with mainly Democratic votes.
There are at least two ways this could turn out badly.
First, the House could reject the Senate’s deal, and send the country over the “cliff” — bringing on higher tax rates and painful spending cuts. Polls already show the public is ready to blame the GOP for this. Boehner would become the face of a national disaster.
Another bad outcome for Boehner: A deal passes, but just a few dozen Republicans join a larger number of Democrats to vote “yes.” Then Boehner would be seen as having given away the majority’s power. He might even face a challenge for reelection when a new term begins Jan. 3.