WASHINGTON – John Boehner vowed early on that as speaker, he would let the House "work its will." At the end of his first year in charge of the fractious Republican-controlled chamber, it's clear he has little choice.
An uncompromising band of conservatives, led by GOP freshmen to whom Boehner owes his speakership, has repeatedly forced him to back away from deals with President Barack Obama, Democrats and, this week, even one struck by Senate Republicans. Gridlock, again and again, has defined Congress in the Boehner era even as Americans fume and the economy continues to wobble.
In a closed meeting Monday night, a few Republicans gave voice to widely whispered questions about Boehner's ability and willingness to represent them in negotiations with the White and Senate. They were incensed that the Senate had overwhelmingly passed a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans and then left town for the holidays. House Republicans were demanding a year-long tax cut, but there was no longer a Senate in session to negotiate with.
How could this have happened, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked Boehner, according to multiple officials who were present.
Rep. Cliff Stearns was more direct: Was the Senate deal really a total surprise? Or did Boehner give some sort of tacit agreement?
Boehner tersely, adamantly denied doing so, according to those present. He said he had not expected the Senate's overwhelming approval of the two-month extension.
"I take the speaker at his word that he was surprised by the strong support for the payroll tax legislation in the Senate, which approved it with 89 votes, including from 39 Republicans," Stearns said Tuesday in a statement to The Associated Press.
Did Rep. Jeff Flake believe Boehner? "Oh, I don't know," said the Arizona Republican, grinning and edging away. "You'll have to ask the leaders that."
Boehner "has told us he did not agree to this," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. "I am not a mind reader, and I can only go on what the speaker has said."
At midday Tuesday, the House rejected the Senate's two-month extension, leaving hanging the fate of the tax cut for 160 million Americans, unemployment benefits for 2 million more, and Medicare reimbursements for physicians to treat 48 million Medicare beneficiaries. As it now stands, Social Security taxes on workers will by up to $40 a week on Jan. 1, people out of work for more than six months will start losing jobless benefits and doctors will see their fees for treating Medicare patients cut 27 percent.
It was an ugly end to a year of gridlock on Capitol Hill that earned Congress historically low approval ratings and the nation a downgrade in its credit rating. The policy debate changed, but the question was the same each time: Compromise, or no deal?
First was the fight last spring over how many billions of dollars to cut from the 2011 federal budget after talks strayed far below the Republicans' campaign promise to slash $100 billion. Rather than standing firm and allowing parts of the government to shut down until enough lawmakers came around, Boehner did exactly what the tea partiers campaigned had campaigned against — he negotiated with Obama and Senate Democrats on smaller spending cuts.
"Cut it or shut it!" chanted a crowd of tea partiers outside the Capitol.
OK as a campaign slogan, but not a viable technique for lawmaking in a divided government. Some of the 87-member freshman class, swept to power by tea party enthusiasm, insisted that Boehner rewrite the GOP proposal. He did, and submitted instead a proposal to cut about $61 billion — the pro-rated remainder of conservatives' campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in the 2011 budget year.
Moments before the government was set to shut down, most of the freshman class voted for the final, six-month deal to cut $38.5 billion.
Soon followed the showdown over whether to raise the nation's debt limit. Deficit cuts totaling $2 trillion or more over a decade would be the price for Congress to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and continue borrowing 35 to 40 cents of every dollar it spends. Failure to lift that cap could cause the U.S. government to default on its bills and previous borrowing for the first time in its history. Experts warned the cascading reaction in world financial markets could trigger another recession.
Massive spending cuts were mandatory, and raising taxes was out of the question, Republicans said. Boehner assigned his lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to negotiate a blend of spending cuts into the deal with Vice President Joe Biden. But Boehner was meeting secretly with Obama on a grander deal to cut as much as $4 trillion. House Republicans were furious when they learned about it, and the speaker broke off his talks with the president.
In the end, Congress agreed to a deal cutting spending by more than $2 trillion and raising the debt limit by nearly the same amount. But the bill was still highly unpopular among House conservatives who felt it didn't go far enough in slashing government spending.
And finally, the end-of-year debate over the payroll tax cut. The House voted Tuesday, 229-193, to kick the measure back to the Senate, where the bipartisan two-month measure passed on Saturday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he won't allow bargaining until the House approves the Senate's short-term measure.
Back to gridlock.
The speaker's allies say his patience and his willingness to pull back is preventing conservatives from trying to replace him.
"It's a maturation process" for the House's feisty newcomers, said Rep. Steve LaTourette, a fellow Ohioan and close Boehner ally. "They came to town not knowing how this place works. Now that they have a year under their belts, we're in a much better place going into next year."