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Updated Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 11:29 AM

Boehner gains strength with House Republicans

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
The New York Times

WASHINGTON —

With a daunting fiscal crisis looming and conservatives outside the House torching him at every turn, House Speaker John Boehner might be assumed to have a shaky hold on his gavel. Instead, it appears he is enjoying the broadest support of his tumultuous two-year speakership from House Republicans.

As Boehner digs in for a tense confrontation with President Obama, the strong embrace from a broad spectrum of the rank-and-file may empower him as he tries to strike a deal on spending cuts and tax increases that spares the country a recession, without costing Republicans too much in terms of political principle.

With the election results ensuring another four years with Obama in the White House and a growing docket of polls that show voters ready to blame Republicans for a failure to avert the "fiscal cliff," many House Republicans appear to view Boehner with the same sort of respect that adult children award their parents for the sage counsel they ignored in their younger days.

Should his support hold up, Boehner, who faced a frequent battering from his own members during the past two years as he tried to seal deals on various spending agreements, would be better able to negotiate from a point of relative Republican unity.

Perhaps most important, he would be viewed as able to sell a deal to his once-fractious caucus.

In a private meeting Wednesday involving Boehner and House Republicans, member after member spoke in support of him, in some cases saying a deal they would have rejected six months ago would most likely be taken today.

"I want to be a strong advocate and say that I am with the speaker," said Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, a House freshman. "I am with the leadership."

Further helping Boehner, for now, is the sense that he is no longer forced to look constantly over his shoulder, fearing a counterproductive move by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader who has spent much of the last two years maneuvering around Boehner.

Cantor signed on this week to Boehner's package that included $800 billion in new revenue, putting him on the same page with the speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the Budget Committee and recent vice-presidential candidate whom many of the most conservative members look to for cues, also signed on.

That proposal, along with the speaker's approval of a decision to strip plum committee assignments from four members who consistently voted against the leadership, has brought great consternation from conservative groups and influential conservatives outside the House. But Boehner and the majority of his members seem willing to ignore the outcry.

There also is the not-small matter of fundraising: Boehner raised nearly $100 million for Republican House candidates this election cycle, including incumbents, further securing goodwill.

The dynamic may shift if some members, especially those from very conservative regions, begin to chafe against any deal they believe gives too much ground to Democrats. But for now, Boehner's stronger hand is a significant shift from previous periods of negotiations, from the first battle over a short-term spending agreement, to a fight over the payroll tax, to the battles last year over the debt ceiling that led to the current crisis.

"Our members understand the serious issues this country faces," he said Wednesday, when asked about the shift in his conference. "They understand that we've got to solve this problem, and we will."

Several Republicans said Wednesday that the combination of the onerous nature of the potential tax increases and spending cuts and the realities of the recent election combined to bolster Boehner's support.

"I think the presidential election has something to do with it," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. "We understand that we're going to have to deal with Obama for four more years. Also, there is an understanding that this is a very serious situation."

In the past two years, many conservative members, buoyed by some freshmen who constantly moved the bar for Boehner on budget negotiations, seemed to drive much of the House agenda, assuming that a Republican would occupy the White House next year.

But with Mitt Romney's and Ryan's White House dreams dashed, Boehner resumes the role of the titular head of his party, and many members realize they have little choice left but to support him.

"He is the de facto negotiator for the party," said Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who has given Boehner headaches in the past. "Perhaps I am practicing the grace that comes from watching someone try to do what I myself cannot do."

Related developments

"Cliff" bill: If there is no deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff," the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates the average American would see tax bills rise by $3,446 next year. Taxpayers earning more than a $1 million would endure a $254,000 tax increase, on average. Those earning between $40,000 and $50,000 would see a $1,700 tax jump. After-tax income would decline across all income levels, according to the Tax Policy Center. The nation's lowest earners would see about a $412 drop on average, while the top 1 percent of earners would need to shell out an additional $120,000. Middle-class families earning $40,000 to $65,000 annually would see taxes increase by about $2,000.

A phone call: President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner spoke by phone Wednesday about the "fiscal cliff," but officials provided no details of the conversation, which came on the same day the president warned congressional Republicans not to inject the threat of a government default into the already complex issue.

House OT? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Wednesday that although the House was originally set to adjourn Dec. 14, it will be in session until Congress has resolved the fiscal standoff. Staff members in the House and Senate are preparing to work right up to Christmas to hammer out a deal.

Seattle Times news services


ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES
House Speaker John Boehner, above, and House Republicans met Wednesday, and some members say a fiscal deal they would have rejected six months ago would most likely be taken today.




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