By Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — House Speaker John A. Boehner likes to call himself a happy warrior. On days when Washington politics get rough, he whistles “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in the hallways.
But most of Boehner’s Republican troops — particularly the tea-party-influenced freshmen — think of themselves more as freedom fighters. To get fired up during the payroll tax standoff this week, they took turns recalling the wild-eyed, chest-thumping battle scenes of “Braveheart.”
Their decision to dig in against a bipartisan tax compromise — and thereby risk an average $86-per-month tax increase on 160 million workers — put an end to Boehner’s whistling. After finally pushing through the compromise Thursday night, Boehner, of Ohio, ended his first year as speaker facing new questions about the limits of his leadership, including whether he can control his troops in the new year.
The extension President Barack Obama signed Friday expires after two months. The tea-party-backed conservatives in the House wanted to fight for the extension for a full year with clear offsetting spending cuts and new revenue, and were not happy when Boehner elected to grab the two-month deal as the Christmas recess bore down.
Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, for one, said he considered returning to Washington to object — thereby blocking the House from passing it by unanimous consent — but realized he did not have time to travel from Kansas.
“I’m disappointed in leadership. The freshman class came to change Washington, to make it more principle-based. But this is just more of the same decision-making based on political expediency,” Huelskamp said.
When the recess ends, “I think you’re going to see us question every strategic decision. I’ll think we’ll be saying, ‘Their strategy didn’t work for us last year; why would it this year?’” he said.
The fallout was a notable shift from the deft management Boehner demonstrated much of his first year as speaker. The new Republican House majority believed it had been elected to roll back Obama’s vision of government, without compromise.
Boehner, a veteran legislator accustomed to the give and take of deal-making, gave punch to their cause and pursued their priorities but did not let the House go over the edge.
The government did not shut down. There was no federal default. Republicans pushed Democrats to consider once-unthinkable reductions in the size and scope of government and largely controlled the conversation in Congress most of the year.
“It’s important to note how we’ve changed the debate here in Washington and the direction of our government,” Boehner told a group of reporters in his suite of offices this fall. “We’re not talking about spending more money; we’re talking about spending less. It’s probably been the most dramatic change we’ve seen over the course of this year.”
Yet in a matter of days filled with either miscommunication, missteps or both, Boehner appeared to lose his touch during the last big fight of the year.
As efforts were under way to reach a bipartisan deal to extend the payroll tax break through 2012, Boehner stepped aside to let Senate negotiators try their hand at talks. As the two-month interim took shape, Boehner did not publicly embrace it — nor did he shoot it down. Only after his troops rejected it on a rowdy conference call did he deny he had given the green light to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The House tanked the same deal it would later accept with minor modifications.
“You know what happens in a crowd situation, whether it’s six people or 600 at a football game, and people start booing and moving in a certain direction,” said Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who described the GOP opposition to the deal as a spontaneous “Hell, no!” “Sometimes you just can’t stop it, and I think that happened.”
In a conference call with Republicans to discuss the temporary deal Thursday night, Boehner was firm in not allowing challenges from his caucus. Some lawmakers remain opposed, but more and more had realized it would be a political mistake to let the tax break expire.
“I think that Boehner got it,” said John Feehery, a consultant and former GOP leadership aide. “I think he decided that he wasn’t going to walk himself off a cliff.”