Mr. Boehner finally chose to slam the door on his highly opinionated conference on Thursday afternoon, telling lawmakers that their view on the extension of the payroll tax break was no longer of interest. He was, he said, ready to accept the Senate’s short-term solution, which passed both chambers and was signed by President Obama on Friday.
When Congress reconvenes next month at the start of what inevitably will be a highly contentious election year, Mr. Boehner will find out whether his less-experienced members have finally been schooled in the way of divided government or if they will dig in against him, posing a potential threat to his leadership.
“I’m disappointed in our entire leadership team,” Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said in an interview Friday with CNN, adding that he had considered returning to the Capitol to protest the vote. “After one year watching what’s occurred and seeing our conservative principles falling by the wayside numerous times in these debates, we’ve got a lot of progress to make.”
But the fact that neither Mr. Huelskamp, nor any other House Republican, dared to return to Washington to object to the legislative action Friday suggests that there is little current likelihood of a credible effort to challenge Mr. Boehner’s leadership.
Indeed some freshmen members said the experience left them rethinking the hard-line stance that their class took all year as they flowed from one victory to the next, vexing Senate Democrats and the White House.
“Our freshman class wanted to do a lot of things,” said Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. “Did we accomplish them all? No. But what I’ve come to realize is that in divided government you don’t always get what you want.”
Mr. Boehner says he is confident he has control.
But the question remains of what will happen next year, when these Republicans have a chance to speak back to their speaker — there is no mute button in the caucus room. And the answer has enormous political implications for Mr. Obama, who has spent much of the year being foiled by the party; for Congress, where at least the Democratic-controlled Senate is very much in play; and for the continuing debate over how to right the nation’s fiscal ship.
“No one is perfect,” Mr. Duffy said. “But the speaker has had a tough job. He has tried to build a coalition behind a lot of different ideas, and I think it has garnered him respect in the conference, but when you do that you open yourself up to the issues we have faced over the last couple of weeks.”
It doesn’t help that Mr. Boehner often cannot rely on the help of his deputy, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who is more closely aligned with the more conservative members of the House and who differed with Mr. Boehner on how to proceed on the payroll tax.
Mr. Boehner has also more than once appeared to miscalculate just how far his conference is willing to go to stand up for legislative ideas they strongly support, even when they have zero chance of becoming law. “We had a real communication challenge,” said Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, who was elected in 1992. “We might wear the same Republican jersey and allegedly we are on the same team, but sometimes we are going to call plays in a different direction.”
The raucous Republican freshmen, aided by many of the more senior conservative members, have helped the House majority achieve goals that would have seemed impossible in previous divided governments.
They have controlled the spending conversation from the first battle, when new members demanded that Republicans hold out for billions more in cuts than those sought by House appropriators. It continued through the debt ceiling showdown, in which a plan to cut $2.1 trillion over 10 years was formed, as well as during the intense focus on changes in entitlement programs.
But the payroll tax became the wrong battle at the wrong time, framed in the muddiest of terms from Day 1 by Mr. Boehner’s chamber. Many Republicans — notably Mr. Cantor and Mr. Boehner himself — initially suggested that the tax cut for middle-class earners was not a great idea and would not stimulate the economy. The House did pass a one-year extension bill, but with so many unrelated policy components — including one to revamp the unemployment insurance system — that Senate Democrats would not brook it.
When the chambers could not agree on how to get to a one-year plan, the Senate passed a short-term measure, but House Republicans balked, saying they needed a one-year extension on a tax cut many had not supported at all.
For Republicans, being associated with a potential tax increase right before the holidays ended up being too much to handle politically, as editorial boards and Republican senators rained criticism on their heads. Further, unlike in every other major partisan fight this year, Mr. Obama did not back down.
“We should have been on high ground from a public relations standpoint,” Mr. Kingston said. “But part of the speaker’s job in any legislative body is to make the tough decisions that are in the interest of the country and in the interest in protecting his majority. One of the things we found out during the shutdown in the Newt-Clinton years is that you couldn’t base your decisions on Republican red-state sentiment, or you leave your members in purple states vulnerable.”
It is a balance that is ever perilous. “As a former member of leadership,” Mr. Kingston said, “I can say every day in leadership you are living on thin ice.”