Slippery varmints in Boehner’s barrow

House Republicans meet on Wednesday for the first time since the election, which their party lost badly.

Mitt Romney was defeated by President Obama, Senate Republicans lost two seats and the House GOP saw its majority dwindle.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerNunes rebuffs calls for recusal Wounded Ryan faces new battle Bottom Line MORE (R-Ohio) has called on his party to change, notably by being flexible about tax policy. He has also said Republicans should pursue immigration reform, although he has not been specific.

BoehnerJohn BoehnerNunes rebuffs calls for recusal Wounded Ryan faces new battle Bottom Line MORE has the toughest job in Washington after Obama, and his GOP colleagues have the power to make it easier — or a lot harder.

If they are as fractious as they have been since being sworn in in 2011, Boehner might fall out of love with his gavel. He could not hammer his conference into unity during the 112th Congress; there were dozens of GOP defections on high-profile bills last year, including 54 in March, 59 in April, 66 in August and 101 in November. Earlier this year, there were 91 on the payroll tax extension.

In 2009, House Republicans united against stimulus spending and Obama’s healthcare law. Now Republican leaders want their members to unify behind a deal on cutting deficits and debt. Going over the fiscal cliff by letting taxes go up for everyone is viable, they say.

It will be difficult for Boehner to secure a grand bargain that a significant majority of his colleagues can support. He will listen to their views at a GOP conference meeting Wednesday, and he will undoubtedly hear a wide range of sometimes conflicting suggestions.

The key for Boehner and his lieutenants will be to get them to coalesce. If they don’t, Obama and congressional Democrats will pummel them politically.

Boehner acknowledged earlier this year that it is difficult to keep his conference in line. His metaphor was an amusing version of the old saw about herding cats; he said that “it’s hard to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow.”

He managed to keep enough frogs in the barrow to maintain his majority in the next Congress. But there will be plenty of croaking in coming weeks, and the slippery varmints will test his skills.