WASHINGTON — On a conference call with House Republicans a day after the party’s electoral battering last week, Speaker John Boehner dished out some bitter medicine, and for the first time in the 112th Congress, most members took their dose.
Their party lost, badly, Boehner said, and while Republicans would still control the House and would continue to staunchly oppose tax rate increases as Congress grapples with the impending fiscal battle, they had to avoid the nasty showdowns that marked so much of the last two years.
Members on the call, subdued and dark, murmured words of support – even a few who had been a thorn in the speaker’s side for much of this Congress.
It was a striking contrast to a similar call last year, when Boehner tried to persuade members to compromise with Democrats on a deal to extend a temporary cut in payroll taxes, only to have them loudly revolt.
With President Barack Obama re-elected and Democrats cementing their control of the Senate, Boehner will need to capitalize on the chastened faction of the House GOP that wants to cut a deal to avert sudden tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts in January that could send the nation’s economy back into recession. After spending two years marooned between the will of his loud and fractious members and the Democratic Senate majority, the speaker is trying to assert control, and many members seem for now to be offering their support.
“To have a voice at the bargaining table, John Boehner has to be strong,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, one of the speaker’s lieutenants. “Most members were just taught a lesson that you’re not going to get everything that you want. It was that kind of election.”
Aides say this is an altered political landscape that Boehner did not expect. As a result, whether the nation can avoid the so-called fiscal cliff will depend not only on whether Boehner can find common cause with a newly re-elected, invigorated president, but also whether he can deliver his own caucus.
“I just believe John will have more leeway than in the past Congress,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “The election will matter.”
Other Republicans, however, have already issued a stern warning to Boehner that he cannot expect their votes if he makes a deal with Democrats before seeking their consent.
“What we’ve seen in the past is the speaker goes, negotiates with the president, and just before we vote, he tells us what the deal is and attempts to persuade us to vote for it,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “We’re just not very happy with deals being baked, then we’re asked to stay with the team and support the speaker.”
Given those conflicting demands, Boehner must decide whether he wants to seal his role as an essential player in a grand plan to restructure the nation’s fiscal condition, or continue the status quo of the very gridlock voters appear to detest.
“I don’t want to box myself in, and I don’t want to box anyone else in,” Boehner told reporters on Friday.
Boehner aides say the situation is not as dire as the conflicts of the past two years, which nearly led to a government default on its debt and included a series of impasses that plunged Congress’ approval rating to its lowest recorded level. Any deal with the president would probably lose 60 to 80 Republican votes, but the president would bring along enough Democrats to get it passed.
“When the president and I have been able to come to an agreement, there has been no problem getting it passed here in the House,” Boehner assured reporters, alluding to the deal struck with Obama to extend payroll tax cuts, which took Democratic support.
On Wednesday’s conference call, their ranks slightly reduced by the election, House Republican leaders presented a united front, a departure from the backbiting of earlier showdowns, the leaders’ aides admit. After acknowledging that the election had not gone the way any of them had hoped, Boehner made an ardent plea for unity, saying they could expect a good deal out of the coming negotiations only if they stuck together.
The handful of Republican backbenchers who spoke up agreed, and those included often-rebellious conservatives like Reps. Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.
Before Boehner went in front of the cameras that afternoon with a carefully worded statement on the fiscal talks, aides say he checked in with another figure he will need on his side, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the defeated vice-presidential nominee and the House Budget Committee chairman. He told Ryan what he was about to say and assured him he would be welcomed back as committee chairman, even though he needs a waiver to escape rules that limit chairmen’s terms.
Ryan then went hunting and left Boehner to deliver his message.
But even his vague comments last week about his openness to new revenues to resolve the fiscal impasse – and about a desire to work on some sort of immigration reform legislation, in a blunt acknowledgment of his party’s weakness among Hispanic voters – got immediate pushback from some members, including Fleming and Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
Some House Republicans have latched on to their own re-elections to claim a dual mandate.
“The message from this election for me seems to be, ‘You guys keep going,“’ said Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma. “The Senate was rewarded for inactivity, the House was rewarded for standing up for its principles and the president was rewarded for his. I was elected by my district to represent their values. I really don’t approach this and say, Now I’ve got to cave to what the Senate or president want.”
Obama has continued to press his point that he campaigned clearly on a call to allow taxes to rise on the rich. Otherwise, he has said, the poor and middle class would bear all the burden of deficit reduction.
Some Republican members appear ready to accede to that mandate.
“The election was a wake-up call,” said one veteran Republican in the House, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be frank about an election many of his colleagues are still coming to grips with. For many members, “everyone they knew hated Obama. Everyone they knew agreed exactly with them. And then we lost.”
But other Republicans see a different message in Tuesday’s results.
“If you look at my own election as an example, what voters were saying is they like Obama but they don’t trust him on taxes, so they want a check and balance on things,” said Rep. Tom Latham, Republican of Iowa, who convincingly beat another incumbent, Leonard L. Boswell, a Democrat, in a redrawn district.
Others representing staunchly conservative districts see no reason to give in, even if the nation as a whole sided with the president on taxes.
“A majority of Americans thought it was just fine to raise taxes on higher income people, but that’s more of an emotional response, more ‘I’m in pain, I want someone else to pay,“’ Fleming said in an interview. But, he added, “How does that solve America’s problems? That’s counterproductive to go down that road.”