WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, a large animal vet from Gainesville who has been in office only nine months, has a unique way of capturing the forces bearing down on House Speaker John Boehner:
"You know how you make tempered steel? You put it in a fire, you beat it. You put it in a fire, you beat it. You mold it and meld it. That's what's happened to him."
Boehner, who in March said he would not link a fight over the health care law to a stop-gap budget bill, has done just that, leading to the first government shutdown in 17 years, now in its fifth day.
"I have to give Mr. Boehner and the leadership team a lot of credit," said Yoho. "I've seen an attitude change. They are listening to members."
Since becoming speaker in 2011, Boehner has struggled with an assertive band of hard-core conservatives, most of them tea party newcomers like Yoho, who have pushed the GOP to the right, demanding deep budget cuts and absolute opposition to Obamacare.
"He withstood the pressure for a long time. He finally has agreed to the outspoken minority of his conference. And they're pretty much in charge right now," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
There are other protagonists in the shutdown drama — Sen. Ted Cruz, the rabble-rousing Republican from Texas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the wily Democrat of Nevada and President Barack Obama — but it is Boehner, a cigarette-loving, perma-tanned Ohioan, who is feeling it the most.
Boehner could end the standoff immediately. There is a group of 20 or so Republicans who say they would vote with Democrats for a budget measure that does not touch Obamacare. But so far he has not bent.
"This isn't some damn game!" Boehner fumed Friday, reacting to a White House staffer, quoted anonymously in the Wall Street Journal, saying Democrats were "winning" the politics of the shutdown. "The American people don't want their government shut down and neither do I," he said, insisting all Republicans want is a discussion about health care.
Boehner, 63, has been called a puppet and weak, the leader of "banana Republicans" as Reid put it this week. But he has also gained standing with conservatives as the one who finally took the fight to the wall after more than three-dozen symbolic votes to defund or delay Obama's signature legislative accomplishment. Late this week there was talk Boehner was all along seeking the mystical "grand bargain" to hammer out differences on budget issues, entitlements and taxes.
Boehner has limits. He has told Republicans he will not allow the government to default on its debt for its first time, a critical test that comes Oct. 17, when the federal borrowing limit is reached.
"He's playing this out as best he can," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former senior House aide. "In many ways he's the best public face for this. People think he's more moderate than he actually is. He's not a fire breather. The press kind of generally cuts him some slack because they think he's got a bad hand. He's almost the underdog."
Whatever happens, it is clear Boehner never expected the job to be so maddeningly difficult.
"I once heard John compare his job to a person who runs a cemetery. He's got a lot of people under him and nobody is listening," said Rep. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, a close ally. "It's a challenging job and nobody who ever holds it goes unscathed. Look at Nancy Pelosi. Look at Newt Gingrich."
Boehner rose to power in the 2010 midterms, which coincided with the ascendancy of the tea party. The newcomers to Capitol Hill campaigned as outsiders, putting them at odds with Boehner, a 23-year veteran. In December, Boehner faced one of his most embarrassing defeats when, unable to get enough Republican support, he had to pull a bill that would have extended tax breaks for people making under $1 million. Democrats then secured a deal that raises taxes on people making $400,000 or more.
In January, Boehner endured the ignominy of an attempted coup with a number of Republicans voting against him for another term as speaker. Yoho was among them.
"My whole thing was career politicians led us to where we're at," said Yoho, who defeated former Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala, himself a creature of Washington, in a Republican primary. "It doesn't matter if they are Republican or Democrat. The only way to change Washington is by changing the people you bring up here."
Yoho illustrates Boehner's struggles.
He comes from a safe Republican district, facing less backlash as a shutdown continues. Increasingly this is the story of Congress. Gerrymandered districts have isolated Democrats and Republicans, pushing one side to the left and the other to the right.
During the last shutdown in 1995-96, 79 of 236 House Republicans, or 33.5 percent, came from districts Bill Clinton won in 1992, according to an analysis by David Wasserman with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Now just 17 of 232, or 7.3 percent, come from districts Obama won in 2012. (Boehner faces no threat back in Ohio; he was re-elected last year without opposition.)
Compromise only invites the possibility of a primary challenge and the influence of outside political groups such as the conservative Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
So Boehner faces a group of about 30 to 40 Republicans who are willing to cross him with no real fear of reprisal.
"We've got a diverse caucus, frankly," Boehner told reporters in September. "Republicans, by their very nature, are a bit more independent than our colleagues across the aisle."
Boehner's allies say he is not capitulating as much as he is reading the dynamics of a fractured caucus. Chabot said the media has unfairly focused on Boehner, ignoring Reid and Obama.
Still, the speaker has clearly backtracked, fueling a portrait that he has been trapped by the tea party. After Obama's re-election, he was asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer if repealing the health care law was still his mission. "The election changes that," he replied. "Obamacare is the law of the land."
In March, Boehner signaled he would not tie a short-term budget (now the norm in gridlocked Washington) with another effort to defund the law. "I believe that trying to put Obamacare on this vehicle risks shutting down the government. That's not what our goal is," he said.
On Sept. 20, the House voted on a bill to fund the government for six weeks but strangle Obamacare, setting up the confrontation with the Senate. The shutdown began at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 1, when government funding ran out.
Boehner "has spent the last couple years feeding the tea party beast and then complains when it gets out of control," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a ranking Democrat from Maryland. "It's now time to assert some leadership. If Republicans want to have their civil war, they should have it in a way that doesn't have a terrible fallout for the rest of the country."
Boehner's moves have been interpreted by some as self-preservation. If he doesn't hold firm on Obamacare he might not survive another vote for speaker (assuming Republicans hold the House after the 2014 midterms). His office denies such machinations, but Yoho says Boehner has helped himself.
"If he stays the course like this, he'd have a tremendous amount of support," Yoho said. "There's been more unity over this than anything I've ever seen."
Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports