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Speaker John Boehner still faces a GOP House divided

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — As a subdued John A. Boehner started to lay the groundwork for compromise with President Barack Obama to avert a year-end tax and spending crisis, the House speaker also began a delicate dance around the deep divisions in the Republican Party.

As Congress returns Tuesday, the Ohio Republican must contend with the tea party wing, which helped the GOP retain the House majority as many conservatives won re-election, but which also contributed to its losses in the Senate.

Republican leaders are re-evaluating their relationship with the tea party, a political marriage that has fueled gridlock and, some believe, played a role in the GOP’s dismal outcome at the polls. The intense conservative opposition to tax increases could thwart the desire of Boehner and other Republicans to show voters the party can help make Washington work.

The speaker has made an early effort to strike a balance.

In the days after the election, he sounded a public note of conciliation, telling the president, “We want you to succeed,” as he signaled a willingness to shift from the party’s hard anti-tax position.

But he also made clear that the party opposed any increase in tax rates. Obama has called for taxes to rise for the wealthiest Americans. Specifically, Obama has said he wants to raise rates to Clinton-era levels on income above $250,000 for families and $200,000 for individuals.

“The president and his team have made clear they believe his re-election is a mandate for his tax plan,” Boehner told rank-and-file Republicans on a conference call after the election. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is not the case.”

On the call, Boehner characterized his House majority as “the line of defense” against the Obama administration, according to a GOP source who was not authorized to discuss internal party matters publicly.

“For the next two years, that will continue to be our role,” Boehner said.

This is the complicated courtship the chain-smoking speaker must undertake in the next 50 days as he attempts to satisfy his right wing while meeting Obama across the aisle for the deal that voters — and the stock market — have signaled they want.

Obama will convene congressional leaders at the White House on Friday amid optimism on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that voters sent a message that they are tired of Washington dysfunction, creating an opportunity for compromise. Back-channel talks are already under way to shape a deal.

“It’s like they’re boxers in the ring, and they’re both dancing,” said Gabe Horwitz, director of the economic program at Third Way, a think tank aligned with moderate Democrats. “At least they’re in the ring.”

Failure to reach an agreement would result in automatic tax increases at the beginning of the year on virtually all Americans when the George W. Bush-era rates are due to expire. At the same time, massive federal spending cuts would take effect because Congress failed to find ways to trim the budget. Together, they would cause a fiscal contraction that economists warn would launch another recession.

Obama has been circumspect as he begins negotiations. But Democrats on Capitol Hill are emboldened by the president’s re-election as well as their gains in the GOP-controlled House and their strengthened majority in the Senate.

But the conservative flank in the House and Senate shun suggestions of compromise and have been less than impressed by Boehner’s softer public tone.

“Boehner is waving the white flag on our core principles,” wrote the executive director of the political organization headed by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a tea party favorite, in a fundraising note to supporters. “The only way for Republicans to improve their party’s image is to boldly stand for the principles of freedom that made this country great.”

Conservatives off Capitol Hill, including Fox News’ Sean Hannity, have mused aloud about whether it is time for a new speaker.

After walking the Veterans Day parade route in Bucklin, Kan., on Monday, freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp said his district had voted to re-elect him, but not Obama. He took the message to be: “We didn’t send you to Washington to do what Mr. Obama wants you to do.”

The speaker must be mindful of these views, even though no Republican is expected to challenge him for the leadership post.

Boehner is from an earlier era, when deals were made with a handshake between leaders. He has made no secret that his biggest regret since becoming speaker has been the inability to strike a big budget deal with Obama. They tried last year and failed.

When Boehner spoke the day after the election from the Capitol’s stately Rayburn Room, named after legendary former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, he suggested his party would accept new tax revenues if they came from reforms in the tax code that also led to lower rates overall. Broad cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other spending would have to be part of the deal.

The offer was seen by some as an opening, by others as the same line in the sand.

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