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 Boehner's speakership 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 House 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 Senate in session to negotiate with.
How could this have happened? Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked Boehner, according to many who were present.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, 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.
At midday Tuesday, the House rejected the Senate's two-month extension, leaving in limbo 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.
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?
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."