Republicans on Capitol Hill, to put it mildly, were somewhere between shocked and amused by the president’s rejection of their suggestion to spare all but millionaires a tax hike. It was not only that Senate Democrats had voted to do just that in 2010; it was that the threat to reject such a bill if passed by the House rang hollow in the absence of any alternate measure that could pass both houses. So now President Obama was going to hold middle-class taxpayers hostage? Somehow Republicans weren’t buying it.

If Rep. Paul Ryan objects to the speaker’s negotiating, he’s remaining mum. – Win McNamee / Getty Images

As a senior Senate adviser scoffed, “The President didn’t campaign on taxing 200-thousandaires, he campaigned on taxing ‘millionaires and billionaires.'” (That, by the way, is likely the view of blue-state senators such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for whom voting to tax those $250,000 and above is a tough vote.) The adviser pointed out, “If the Speaker sends us a bill, Dems could try and amend it. But I don’t know what they plan to amend it with.”

On the House side, Republicans found Sen. Harry Reid’s objection to a proposal he once voted for a bit too much to swallow. A GOP leadership aide wisecracked, “Sen. Reid has been a conscientious objector in the Battle of the Fiscal Cliff.  It’s time for him to get in the game.”

While the president and Senate Democrats try to justify how they could oppose a tax hike on millionaires, Boehner is in a comfortable spot with his members. In contrast to the whining of some outside groups and right-wing bloggers, his conference is strongly behind him. 

Robert Costa reported on the Tuesday conference meeting in which Boehner updated his troops. It was clear that House Republicans are willing to give him running room. While there are some open dissenters who still want the impossible (no tax hikes for anyone), they don’t seem numerous nor are they backed openly by the most visible figures in the House, who seem to prefer to keep a low profile on an issue in which common sense and the base’s demands diverge. (“Who didn’t speak at the private meeting? A trio of high-profile House Republicans: Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Representative Tom Price of Georgia, and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. ‘I have no idea where they stand on this,’ says an ally of the three members. ‘I don’t think they like it, but they didn’t talk.'”)

What Boehner is doing is called leading. He is not asking for or receiving explicit instructions from his conference. He sketched out his principles, explained what is and is not feasible, has put forth some options and now has a reasonable backup plan. That’s a lot more than you can say either for the White House or the right-wing all-or-nothing crowd.