INSIGHT - Budget fight leaves Boehner 'damaged' but still standing

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

But within the halls of the U.S. Capitol, the budget showdown was 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 Wednesday, the House passed a plan from the Democrat-led Senate to end the 16-day government shutdown and move the nation away from defaulting on its debts - a plan that essentially 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 House 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 Tea Party-backed conservatives in the House will allow him to hang on to his job as speaker.

On Wednesday, Boehner received public praise from Tea Party conservatives, many of whom repeatedly have tried to undermine him.

"I've actually been really proud of Speaker Boehner in the last two and a half weeks," said Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho 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 is likely to limp along as speaker for a while longer, but with little clout.

Analysts said the speaker's lack of stature bodes poorly for Congress' chances of advancing major legislation - such as a broad budget deal or an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system - before the 2014 congressional elections.

THE MANNER OF A COACH

Boehner, who represents suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, 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 roiled 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 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 that resulted in the government shutdown and took the United States toward 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 Catholic University. "He, I think, errs on the side of consultation and errs on the side of letting the vocal members of his party have their way."

PRESSURING BOEHNER

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 healthcare law known as "Obamacare."

From the start, Boehner indicated he was deeply skeptical 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 U.S. government to temporarily shut down.

On a conference call with his House Republicans in late August, he recalled the lessons of the 1990s and warned Republicans against pursuing the strategy.

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 criticized as unworkable almost from the start, as Democrats and Republicans such as Arizona Senator john McCain scoffed at the notion that Obama would agree to weaken his signature healthcare law.

It really began to unravel about a week ago, as polls indicated that Americans overwhelmingly blamed Republicans for the congressional stalemate that had closed national parks, delayed death benefits for military families, suspended medical research and closed a range of other federal programs.

Boehner and other House leaders signaled that they wanted a way out of the ordeal during a White House meeting with Obama last week. But it would take several more days to finally clinch a deal.

During much of that time, Boehner was sidelined as Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, negotiated the deal that granted House Republicans virtually no concessions on their demands to weaken Obamacare.

Boehner met his caucus on Tuesday morning in a last-minute attempt to craft a House 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 in the meeting.

The caucus, and Boehner, left it to Reid and McConnell to come up with a deal.

HASTERT DISMAYED

Watching the events unfold this week from his Washington law firm, former House speaker Dennis Hastert said he was mystified by Boehner's actions.

Boehner sometimes has cited Hastert, a Republican who was speaker from 1999 to 2007, as a model for some aspects of Boehner's leadership style.

But 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.

Representative 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." Because he unified House Republicans, Boehner is "more popular and more able to influence than he was two to three weeks ago," Cole said.

Ornstein was skeptical. He agreed that Boehner retains 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."

Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona was among the House conservatives who said his respect for Boehner had grown after the budget fight.

Gosar said earlier this year that he "wasn't a big fan" of Boehner and voted for him as speaker only begrudgingly. But at a town hall-style meeting in August, Gosar even defended Boehner against criticism from some constituents.

"I said, 'John Boehner keeps it together. It takes a special person to do that, and that is what John Boehner does. He has a special gift,'" Gosar said.

But when asked whether he would vote for Boehner for speaker again, Gosar said, "I don't know. I will look at his performance over the entire year. The question may be, 'Will he even want it again?'"

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Tim Reid, David Lawder and Steve Holland; Editing by David Lindsey and Ken Wills)

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