Boehner tightens grip on rank and file to maximize power in 'fiscal cliff' talks

Speaker John Boehner is tightening his grip on the House Republican Conference weeks before an anticipated vote on a deficit deal.

The Ohio Republican has smoothed over differences with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), expanded his powers on the panel that doles out plum committee assignments, shot down a challenge to his earmark moratorium and worked behind the scenes to ensure that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) would win her leadership contest. 

All of Boehner’s moves are aimed at shoring up his influence over the GOP conference, which in turn maximizes the Speaker’s leverage with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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Boehner can’t afford to waste any of that leverage, which took a major hit in the elections that delivered Obama a second term and increased the number of Democrats in both the House and Senate.  

Any bipartisan agreement on taxes and spending reached by the White House and Boehner will test GOP unity — a test House Republicans largely failed over the last two years.  

Democrats seized on chaos in the House GOP ranks to divide and conquer Republicans at the negotiating table during the payroll tax extension debate earlier this year. 

Administration officials and senior Democrats in Congress openly mused about tension between Boehner and Cantor, saying it played to their advantage.

However, the soap opera between Boehner and Cantor and their staffs, which dominated headlines in the summer of 2011 and into early 2012, has faded. 

“There’s a very strong relationship [building] effort going on there,” a GOP lawmaker at the leadership table told The Hill, noting that Cantor last week delivered the speech nominating Boehner to be Speaker while Boehner nominated the Virginia Republican for majority leader.

Both Boehner and Cantor ran unopposed, but the symbol of the nominating speeches to the entire House Republican Conference was important and “clearly thought out,” the source said. 

In 2010, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) nominated Boehner to be Speaker; Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) nominated Cantor for majority leader.

Lawmakers and others close to Boehner say the Speaker has more sway than he did over House Republicans following the Tea Party wave of 2010. Others maintain the jury is still out. 

Yet Boehner’s internal support was on display when McMorris Rodgers, his favored candidate, captured the No. 4-ranked GOP leadership post. 

The battle to be the head of the House GOP conference was a hard-fought one between McMorris Rodgers and former Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.). 

Boehner never officially endorsed McMorris Rodgers, but his support for her was well-known. Price, meanwhile, was backed by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 

Boehner was quick to include Ryan, back from the presidential campaign trail, in a small group of key lawmakers advising him of strategies ahead of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations with the White House. 

The appointment was a shrewd one; if Ryan endorses a fiscal-cliff pact, many conservatives in the House will fall in line. 

Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also sit in on the fiscal-cliff meetings.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith told The Hill that House Republicans are “the last line of defense against a government that spends, taxes and borrows too much.” 

Smith added that “taking on that responsibility demands that we field the strongest team possible and put members in a position where their talents and expertise can be fully utilized on behalf of the conference and its goals.”

Boehner rewards loyalty, and his power on the GOP Steering Committee — which selects panel chairmen and other committee slots — has been expanded. 

Boehner now has five votes on the committee, up from four. Cantor has three and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has two, while everyone else registers one vote. 

Boehner last week cut off a challenge to the earmark moratorium that he implemented in the conference years ago. After Boehner made his opposition clear, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) withdrew his amendment before it came to a roll-call vote. 

A respected and affable Speaker, Boehner has nonetheless struggled to secure votes on high-profile bills in the 112th Congress. 

He has needed Democratic votes to pass bills on averting a government shutdown and raising the debt limit.

Boehner is well-aware that there will be GOP defections on a potential fiscal-cliff deal, though he will seek to rally as much support as he can for whatever agreement is brokered.

In the wake of the GOP’s stinging losses in the election, Boehner acknowledged that his party would be willing to accept “new revenue” — code for tax increases — if the president were willing to cut spending and reform entitlement programs. 

On Monday, Boehner attempted to play offense as his press office circulated an email titled “GOP open to revenue via tax reform; now let’s talk spending cuts.”

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