House Speaker John Boehner emerges weakened from budget and debt fight
John Boehner's reluctance to stand up to 'tea party' conservatives despite doubting their strategy has left the House speaker diminished
The debt and budget crisis that gripped Washington was the story of a Republican Party at war with itself.
Rebellious conservatives, over the objection of party moderates, tried to use a government shutdown in an unsuccessful assault on US President Barack Obama's health-care law.
But inside the US Capitol, the budget showdown mainly served as a reminder of the weakness of House Speaker John Boehner, the moderate Republican who reluctantly led conservatives' push until it was clear that no solution would emerge from his fractured caucus.
Boehner emerges from the budget fight as a diminished leader with little ability to control a restive caucus whose conservative members tried to oust him from the speakership last year, analysts said.
Late on Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a plan from the Democrat-led Senate to end the 16-day government shutdown and move the United States away from defaulting on its debts - a plan that in essence gave the conservative Republicans nothing.
It was widely seen as another legislative indignity for Boehner, the latest in a string of votes - on budget issues, hurricane relief and farm legislation - in which the speaker had been unable to round up enough votes from House conservatives resistant to compromise.
"He has damaged himself. He has embarrassed himself," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "By any standard, he is a weakened figure."
Even so, it appears that at least for now, Boehner's willingness to carry the water for the four dozen or so conservatives in the House backed by the "tea party" will allow him to hang on to his job as speaker.
On Wednesday, Boehner received public praise from tea-party conservatives, many of whom have repeatedly tried to undermine him.
"I've actually been really proud of Speaker Boehner in the last 2½ weeks," said House member Raul Labrador, a Republican who was among a group of conservatives who voted against Boehner for speaker in January.
"I don't think that he should be ashamed of anything that he has done," Labrador said of Boehner. "I'm more upset with my Republican caucus."
Ornstein said such comments suggested that Boehner was likely to limp along as House speaker for a while longer, but with little clout.
Analysts said the speaker's lack of stature boded poorly for Congress' chances of advancing major legislation - such as a broad budget deal or an overhaul of the US immigration system - before next year's elections.
Boehner has a laid-back manner and a leadership style that his allies often liken to that of a coach. Even as the dynamic of the House has been disturbed with the addition of aggressive, tea-party-backed members since 2010, Boehner has preferred to cajole his troops rather than hand down orders.
Lately, many have interpreted that approach as a wary recognition of the tea party's growing clout in the House. Boehner's style has frustrated Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who have suggested that Boehner's willingness to cede to the demands of a vocal group of tea-party conservatives has made him an unreliable negotiating partner for Democrats.
Democrats say Boehner's unpredictability contributed to the messiness of the most recent budget saga, which resulted in the government shutdown and took the US towards the brink of a first-ever default on its debts.
They also say it exacerbated two previous budget battles, one in 2011 over the debt limit and another in 2012 over automatic budget cuts and expiring tax increases known as the "fiscal cliff".
In both of the prior showdowns, Boehner walked away from talks with Obama after facing a backlash from House conservatives who did not want to see him compromise with the Democratic president.
"He seems to be very wary of confrontation and wary of alienating members of his party," said Matthew Green, an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Green said the latest budget fight was a prime example of Boehner's tendency to try to foster party unity above his own pragmatism - often a difficult task with the current Republican caucus in the House.
The strategy that led to this month's showdown began over the summer, when Boehner faced growing pressure from House conservatives and from groups such as Heritage Action for America and FreedomWorks to use the threat of a government shutdown to try to weaken %the health-care law known as "Obamacare".
From the start, Boehner indicated he was deeply sceptical of the strategy, in part because he recalled the political backlash Republicans had faced in 1995 and 1996, the last time a budget clash between congressional Republicans and a Democratic president forced the US government to shut down temporarily.
But conservatives were undaunted. At a raucous, closed-door meeting in mid-September, Boehner agreed to follow the shutdown strategy after being presented a letter with the signatures of 80 House Republicans who backed it.
The strategy was criticised as unworkable almost from the start, as Democrats and Republicans such as Senator John McCain scoffed at the notion that Obama would agree to weaken his signature health-care law.
It really began to unravel about 10 days into the shutdown, as polls indicated that Americans overwhelmingly blamed Republicans for the stalemate.
Boehner and other House leaders signalled that they wanted a way out of the ordeal during a White House meeting with Obama. But it would take several more days finally to clinch a deal.
During much of that time, Boehner was sidelined as Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, negotiated the deal that granted House Republicans virtually no concessions on their demands to weaken Obamacare.
Boehner met his caucus last Tuesday morning in a last-minute attempt to craft a plan that would have at least some of the concessions House Republicans had sought on the health law. But the plan failed to gain support.
The caucus, and Boehner, left it to Reid and McConnell to come up with a deal.
Watching the events unfold last week from his Washington law firm, former House speaker Dennis Hastert said he was mystified by Boehner's actions.
Boehner has sometimes cited Hastert, a Republican who was speaker from 1999 to 2007, as a model for some aspects of Boehner's leadership style.
Hastert questioned whether Boehner ever had a strategy for the budget fights.
"I probably would have tried to know what I was getting into before I got into it," he said.
House member Tom Cole, a close Boehner ally, predicted on CNN on Thursday that the speaker would come out of the budget fight as a "big winner".
Ornstein was sceptical. He agreed that Boehner retained a lot of loyalty from many House Republicans. But "does that mean they are going to do what he says?" Ornstein asked. "Of course not."