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For Boehner, it’s a balancing act between his country and his caucus

House Speaker John Boehner swears in members of the 113th Congress in Washington, Jan. 3, 2013.


Confirmed as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner seemed to steel himself for the struggles that await him as he seeks to herd his raucous caucus.

"Public service was never meant to be an easy living," the Ohio Republican said at Thursday's opening of the new Congress. "Extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership."

As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, it will fall to Mr. Boehner to contain the civil war that threatens to engulf his party. But the Speaker, who choked up with emotion after his re-election to the top House post on Thursday, knows he might lose it all trying.

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After the so-called fiscal cliff standoff that ended this week, a series of high-stake budget battles with President Barack Obama now await Mr. Boehner. Beginning with a showdown over raising the $16.4-trillion (U.S.) debt ceiling, they will test the Speaker's ability to do his job without rattling financial markets or sparking a caucus revolt.

Mr. Boehner, 63, is acutely aware that the GOP needs to shed its extremist label if it is to have much hope of gaining seats in Congress, much less the White House. But he also knows that most of his 232 members come from deep red districts and see compromise as an open invitation to a primary challenge. Reconciling the two will be exhausting work.

"It is going to take an incredible amount of leadership for Boehner to keep his governing majority together," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "He is more interested in preserving a broad Republican Party than capitulating to the extremists. He realizes the party has to do that if it wants to stay competitive."

On Tuesday, two-thirds of Republican House members, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, voted against a fiscal-cliff compromise that Mr. Boehner supported. The compromise only passed because all but 16 Democrats voted for the bill to avert more than $400-billion (U.S.) in middle-class tax increases and spending cuts set for Jan. 1.

Most House Republicans objected to the bill's tax increases on households earning more than $450,000, even though GOP anti-tax enforcer Grover Norquist gave his benediction to the legislation. He reasoned it was consistent with his Taxpayer Protection Pledge because the bill made the expiring Bush-era tax cuts on the middle-class permanent.

What looked like a repudiation of Mr. Boehner by his members, however, was really an illustration of the fancy stickhandling that has earned the Speaker the admiration of his caucus. Only nine Republicans voted against him in Thursday's Speaker's election.

Speakers typically only allow votes on bills that can pass with a so-called "majority of the majority." But sticking to that rule would have effectively led to the fiscal-cliff bill's demise, leaving Republicans to bear the blame for economic upheaval that followed.

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By letting the bill pass with a majority of Democrats, Mr. Boehner allowed his Republican members "to have their cake and eat it, too," explained Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in House. "The image of the Republican Party was not tarnished by taking the country over the cliff. But a majority of GOP members can return to their districts saying they did not vote for a tax increase."

To be sure, Mr. Boehner has not always looked so clever. Last month, he sought to increase his leverage over Mr. Obama in the fiscal-cliff negotiations by scheduling a House vote on a bill to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for households making less than $1-million. But his caucus balked and he had to pull the bill before the vote.

After that embarrassing slip-up, Mr. Boehner sought to partially make up for it this week by refusing to hold a vote on about $60-billion in aid to states hit by Hurricane Sandy. After voting to raise taxes in the fiscal-cliff bill, the Speaker figured he was asking too much of his members to follow up with a bill that increases spending.

That prompted a backlash from northeastern Republicans, including popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Mr. Boehner quickly relented and scheduled a vote for Friday.

While the Sandy faux pas may be quickly forgiven, the fiscal-cliff compromise will never be forgotten. Reached to avert one crisis, it may have planted the seeds for another.

Many conservatives think Mr. Boehner and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell played directly into Mr. Obama's hands by agreeing to tax increases, violating a key GOP principle that will lead to the party's fracture.

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"This is a complete surrender on everything," columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News on Tuesday. "The ratio of tax hikes to spending cuts [in the fiscal-cliff bill] is 40-to-one. … So, it's a complete rout by the Democrats."

With the fiscal-cliff compromise behind him, Mr. Boehner will be under intense pressure from the right to drive an extra-hard bargain with Mr. Obama over the debt ceiling. The borrowing limit must go up by March to prevent the U.S. Treasury from defaulting on its bonds.

Mr. Boehner has said he is seeking $1 in spending cuts for every $1 increase in the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama has indicated he will not "play that game."

For the Speaker, it could come down to another choice between his country and his caucus.


Face of the new Congress

Politically, the 213th Congress that was sworn in Thursday won't be much of a change from the less-than-stellar 212th Congress it replaces: The balance of power is unchanged, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding a majority in the Senate.

Yet a closer look finds Congress undergoing some of the changes that have altered the face of America, with women and minorities playing increasingly more prominent roles. For the first time, white men will be a minority among House Democrats.

The House will have 79 women, including 60 Democrats. At the end of the last session, there were 50 Democratic women and 24 Republican women. The new Senate will have 20 women members, an increase of three. That consists of 16 Democrats and four Republicans. The last Senate had 12 Democratic women and five Republicans.

The House will have 40 African Americans, all Democrats. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, will be the first black lawmaker in the Senate since Roland Burris, who retired in 2010 after filling the Illinois Senate seat of Barack Obama for almost two years.

According to CQ Roll Call newspaper, the average age of House members in the 113th Congress is 57; the average age of senators is 62. It estimates the House will include some 277 Protestants and Catholics, 22 Jews, two Muslims and two Buddhists. The Senate will have 80 Protestants and Catholics and 10 Jews. The House will have its first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii. Senate freshman Mazie Hirono, also of Hawaii, will be the Senate's only Buddhist.

Associated Press

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More


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