Amid new challenges, Boehner stresses unity at House GOP leadership table

Back in the saddle again, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) plans to do things differently this time around.

On Tuesday, the Speaker retained his title, but he now faces a lonely battle against a Democratic president with new political capital and a larger Democratic majority in the Senate.

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A source close to Boehner said the Ohio lawmaker learned valuable lessons from his tumultuous first two years as Speaker, when he battled President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In order to effectively negotiate contentious economic issues, Boehner has worked on improving his relationship with his deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

During the first year of the GOP’s return to power in the House, internal skirmishes between the top-two ranking Republicans thwarted a potential “grand bargain” on reducing the national deficit and produced a needless appearance of internecine conflict on the payroll tax extension.

“They are smart enough to know they can’t ever be in that situation again. They have to settle their differences at the leadership table,” the source said.

And facing the impending fiscal cliff, Boehner made an effort to work with key members of his leadership team: Cantor; House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

The quartet “huddled several times on fiscal cliff matters” while in town briefly in September, but their staffs “have been working closely together over the last two months on these issues,” a GOP leadership aide told The Hill.

The leadership team endured hefty criticism for lacking cohesion its first year in the majority, letting an at-times-unruly conference decide the way forward on issues such as the payroll tax cut.

Dozens of GOP defections on a variety of high-profile bills undercut Boehner’s authority in 2011, limiting his negotiating power with Reid and the White House.

House Republican leaders failed to “impose some direction and discipline on the conference … and it led us to disaster,” the source said.

In order to lead effectively, it is imperative that those around the table — primarily Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy — work out their differences before presenting their plans to the conference.

Otherwise, the “inmates are running the asylum,” the Republican insider said.

“Boehner certainly learned it, and got us off the battlefield alive,” a task that he will no doubt face again as he confronts a fractious conference in the wake of Mitt Romney’s disappointing showing.

Cohesion around the leadership table is crucial for Boehner and lieutenants following the 2012 election. House GOP conference members will be faced with issues that divide them, most notably the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and immigration.

The leadership aide, who weathered the rough waters between the Speaker and majority leader's office, noted that Boehner and Cantor "are in lockstep now, even if they always hadn't been before."

On Wednesday, there was already a marked change from the way business was previously handled between the two leaders.

Cantor's press office waited to send out a statement on the political landscape until after Boehner delivered a carefully worded address on working with Obama and the Senate.

Cantor clearly endorsed Boehner's position of reaching across the aisle.

"I stand with Speaker Boehner when he says, 'Let's rise above the dysfunction, and do the right thing together for our country,’ ” Cantor said in a statement.

The two leaders spoke following the election results, according to sources.

Throughout much of the 112th Congress, communication between Boehner and Cantor was inconsistent at best.

Prior to his Wednesday address in the Capitol, Boehner participated on a conference call with his fellow GOP House colleagues. Unlike the raucous conference calls on difficult matters, Wednesday's call was "straightforward," a participant told The Hill.

According to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the Speaker told the despondent lawmakers hoping for a White House victory that "in this country we congratulate the president and we'll work with him, but we're going to have to deal with the fiscal cliff, and so is he."

Chaffetz said McCarthy also spoke up during the call, telling the conference, “Let's learn from this — we can march on, stick to our principles. We believe in what we believe in."