Washington braced for the arrival of 87 freshman House Republicans this time last year.
Many had never before served in government.
This crowd wouldn't just "go along to get along." Freshman Rep. Ben Quayle (R-AZ) summed it up best in a 2010 campaign commercial.
"Somebody has to go to Washington and knock the hell out of the place," warned Quayle.
Some wondered how then-incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) would tame these provocateurs as they threatened to turn Congress on its ear.
Boehner was a member of the House GOP leadership when the last group of agitators seized Capitol Hill with the "Republican Revolution" of 1994. He chaired the House Education Committee. He won the post of House Majority Leader in a scrappy 2006 leadership contest.
But those bona fides pale compared to the curriculum vitae Boehner developed as the son of a barkeep in Reading, OH. Rarely a week passes where the speaker doesn't expound to reporters about how that experience positioned him to lead the cacophonous House of Representatives.
Which brings us to the recent imbroglio which embroiled House Republicans over the payroll tax.
At a 10 am news conference last Thursday morning, Boehner appeared to be locking his position for the Christmas holiday: a one year extension of the payroll tax holiday or nothing. But by 3 pm, the speaker signed off on a two-month renewal as Harry Reid agreed to appoint conferees to negotiate a final bill.
On Saturday December 17, Boehner convened a conference call with rank-and-file House Republicans. The Senate had just passed a two-month extension a few hours earlier. Sources on the call say Boehner declared the package a "victory" due to the inclusion of a provision to expedite the construction of the Keystone pipeline.
The call was brutal. For more two hours, truculent GOP members seethed about the Senate's measure and implored its leadership to fight for a better deal.
Which is exactly what Boehner did.
The Ohio Republican had little choice. It's what his rank-and-file wanted. Sure, he could try to pass the Senate measure with some Republicans and a large swath of Democrats. But Boehner wouldn't go there.
Throughout the year, Boehner turned to Democrats to help raise the debt ceiling and avoid multiple government shutdowns. Ten days ago, Boehner successfully funded government for the year by courting more Democratic votes than Republican ones.
Boehner just couldn't turn to the Democrats on the payroll tax.
Boehner's decision to hold out for the year-long tax break renewal forced a standoff with the president and the Senate. Never mind that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) helped engineer the pact which passed 89-10.
The decision to fight unleashed the fury of House Republicans, even as they were pummeled in the polls and by the Wall Street Journal. No one quite understood this strategy. Some suggested it was one of the biggest political blunders in years.
But this was barkeep Boehner, trying to keep the peace.
Boehner had probably observed this scene dozens of times back at his dad's tavern on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Some blue-collar loudmouth with grit under his fingernails would swing by the bar for a few ice-cold brews after a long shift at General Electric in nearby Evendale, OH or the Meyer Dairy in the Cincinnati suburb of Arlington Heights. They'd down some Hudepohl's or maybe a Little Kings Cream Ale or three. Then he'd get mouthy about the treatment by the shift foreman and moan about his "old woman" back home.
It's a delicate balance, knowing how long to keep serving a loyal customer and knowing precisely when to cut him off.
Which is exactly the decision Boehner made as he let his rank-and-file rant for a few days about the payroll tax before finally shutting off the tap last Thursday afternoon.
Astute Congressional observers shouldn't be surprised by this maneuver by Boehner. They've seen it before. Perhaps the best example came in mid-February as Boehner opened up the House floor to a lengthy, multi-day debate about government funding.
Boehner gave the new Republican majority the opportunity to craft a spending bill that made deep cuts. Boehner doubted the bill would make it past the Senate. But he needed to empower the newly-minted GOP majority, as well as Democrats, to have their say on the House floor.
Boehner compared the exercise to an escape valve.
"It's like letting steam build up in a tea kettle," said Boehner of the free-wheeling debate. "Our job is not to have control over there. It's not about achieving my will."
From the start, Boehner made it clear to House Republicans that they couldn't close the government nor fail to raise the debt ceiling. Boehner personally witnessed the consequences of multiple government shutdowns in the mid-1990s. The combative freshman class, driven by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA,) gambled and lost in a high-stakes battle with President Clinton. The "Republican Revolution" was never the same.
So it shouldn't come as any surprise that House Republicans were in full revolt on the first major piece of legislation that had nothing to do with funding government or hiking the debt limit. The payroll tax issue quickly morphed into a proxy war. Many of the most-conservative Republicans voted against government funding bills because they didn't cut spending deeply enough. But Boehner held most in check. Once the payroll tax issue hit, the jailbreak was in full swing, reflected in the House GOP conference on December 17.
So rather than cutting off customers, Boehner kept slinging drinks. Like any good bartender, Boehner knew last call was coming. And like his decision to open up the House floor in February to one of the most open debates in years, Boehner figured House Republicans needed to let off steam for a while.
Until Thursday afternoon.
In the words of the band Semisonic, it was "Closing Time." Boehner made "one last call for alcohol" and instructed GOPers to "finish your whisky or beer" so they could all get home for the holidays.
The House Republican Conference notified rank-and-file members of a 5 pm ET telephone conference call. And unlike the boisterous call a few days earlier, it was clear there would be no give and take this time. This was Boehner's turn to announce what he was going to do.
The bar was closed.
With barely any Republicans in Washington, the House would agree to the bill by "unanimous consent." In other words, if someone was there, they could object. But the odds of that were remote.
This decision ignited a firestorm from some conservatives. After all, the barkeep just cut them off. Boehner had probably witnessed this scene dozens of times back at his father's place.
"No one was given an opportunity to speak," groused one Republican. "We were hung out to dry by our leadership."
Another conservative was more direct.
"He's (Boehner) got a big problem when he comes back," thundered one GOPer who asked not to be identified. "He may have a hard time keeping his Speakership after this."
But others were willing to go on the record.
"I am disappointed that our Republican leadership in both the House and Senate chose a course of political expediency rather than standing on conservative principle," said Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) in a statement.
Rep. Allen West (R-FL), one of the most-outspoken members of the freshman class, blasted the leadership in a Facebook posting. West railed against the Republican leaders for not allowing members to speak on the call.
"It seems the politics of demagoguery have won," lamented West. "This is a sad day for America and further evidences our continuing decline. Men and women of principle are become a dying breed in this republic."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) accused the GOP leadership of asking members to "sign off on yet another gimmick."
"I can count more than a number of occasions when we have been told ‘Big things are coming - just wait.' Each occasion has been followed by refusal to stand on conservative principles," Huelskamp vented. "The recently-passed ‘megabus' and this new Social Security tax ‘deal' are a slap in the face to America and the promises that were made in the Pledge to America."
But the next day, Boehner presided over the House as it okayed the payroll tax measure with just a skeleton crew of lawmakers on hand. No one objected and the House approved the bill.
Senior House GOP leadership aides dismissed suggestions that Boehner would face any challenges to his leadership in January. One top Boehner aide asked why these rank-and-file members didn't come to the House to object if they disagreed so vehemently.
"Where were they?" asked the aide. "No one showed up."
On FOX, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) decried those who blasted Boehner.
"I still have a lot of confidence in him and the leadership," Gingrey said in an interview on FOX. "Sometimes you have to, as speaker, live to fight another day."
Boehner announced the agreement at a Thursday evening press conference, immediately following the conference call that incensed conservatives. I asked Boehner if the decision to block comments this time was due to the hurly-burly on the earlier call.
"I don't set up the conference calls," Boehner answered defensively.
Granted, the House GOP Conference usually sets up the calls. But I pointed out, that while Boehner might not personally arrange the parameters of the call with AT&T, the call was undoubtedly booked in the manner he wanted to conduct it.
"We've got a lot of members with a lot of opinions," Boehner responded. "We have fought the good fight."
After the House approved the bill the next day, Boehner walked alone through the Capitol's ornate Statuary Hall. A throng of reporters trailed the speaker, trying to get him to discuss the agreement, but to no avail.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who had stayed in town to the watch the Georgetown-Memphis basketball game the night before, intercepted Boehner and shook his hand.
"You're a good man," Cohen told the speaker. "I feel for you."
Steps away at a press briefing, 85-year-old Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), first elected to Congress in 1954 and the longest-serving member in House history, offered some advice for conservatives.
"I hope this is a sign of things to come," Dingell said of House Republicans. "I hope they will learn to follow their leader, Mr. Boehner."
Such is the challenge for Boehner and the cantankerous clientele that now visits the Capitol Hill watering hole. Boehner's the proprietor here. As he said during the February debate, it isn't up to him to tell customers what to drink or what to talk about. But it is his job to declare "last call" and usher everyone toward the exits.
That's what Boehner did Thursday on the payroll tax agreement.
Which is a lesson Boehner undoubtedly learned back home in his father's neighborhood bar.