Liked but Not Feared, Boehner Keeps a Job Some Might Ask Why He Wants

John Boehner

After a tumultuous two years in which he struggled to maintain a grip on his fractious caucus, Mr. Boehner — who won the unanimous backing of his party when he was first elected speaker in 2011 — suffered the indignity of 12 Republican defections on the opening day of the 113th Congress. Nine cast their ballots for other people; two remained silent rather than vote, and one simply declared, “Present.”

For Mr. Boehner, 63, of Ohio, it was a warning shot from conservatives, a sobering reminder that while he may hold one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, his power is greatly diminished. His Republican ranks are thinner in the new Congress, and many of those who retired or were defeated are moderates who ordinarily backed him.

“He takes things in stride; he tries not to let it be personal,” said Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, the new chairman of the committee charged with electing Congressional Republicans. “You can see it’s eating on him. He’s got the toughest job in the city, if not the country. He’s having to be a one-man band right now in a very, very high-pressure situation.”

In the last several weeks alone, Mr. Boehner has watched, in humiliation, as his so-called Plan B, an alternative to tax cuts adopted by Congress on Tuesday, collapsed for lack of Republican support. He was sidelined in fiscal negotiations between Republicans and the White House, and then forced to accept a package many of his members opposed. Then Republicans from New York and New Jersey turned against him when he delayed a vote on $60 billion in aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

And in the next few months, he will face new confrontations with President Obama over automatic spending cuts set to go into effect in March, and the so-called debt ceiling, which must be raised so that the government can borrow more money. Once again, Mr. Boehner will have to contend with the conservatives in his party, who remain furious over the recent tax legislation because it did not include spending cuts.

Among them are several freshmen whose first act on Thursday was to vote against Mr. Boehner.

“The challenge is no one is running against” Mr. Boehner for speaker, one of those newcomers, Representative Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, told his hometown newspaper, The Oklahoman. “So what does a guy like me do?”

Mr. Bridenstine cast his ballot for Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican. Another freshman, Steve Stockman of Texas (who served one term in the mid-1990s), explained his decision to vote “present” by complaining that Mr. Boehner had “signed our country onto a fiscal suicide pact.”

All of which might lead a person to ask: Why does Mr. Boehner want this job, anyway?

“He wants to do something big,” said his communications director, Kevin Smith. “He’s been here for 22 years, and becoming speaker is the first time he’s had a real serious opportunity himself to lead an effort to do something big for this country in terms of getting spending under control. He wants to do something big on entitlements, and he wants to do something big on tax reform. That’s why he’s here.”

Despite the discontent, Mr. Boehner seemed confident of his re-election; even before Thursday’s vote, which took place shortly after noon, his office announced that he would hold a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony and picture-taking session later in the day. He did, smiling unfailingly and raising his right hand time and again for the cameras.

Mr. Boehner is an unlikely person to have become speaker of the House. The son of a bar owner, Mr. Boehner grew up in a big Roman Catholic family — he was the second oldest of 12 children — that was not especially political. He put himself through college and went to work for a plastics distribution company, which he eventually wound up running.

His interest in politics blossomed after he became active in the local homeowners association; eventually, he ran for the Ohio legislature. His experience in business gave him a keen interest in regulatory issues and other business concerns, which have been his signature issues.

With his genial manner — and prodigious fund-raising efforts on behalf of fellow Republicans — Mr. Boehner has engendered considerable good will within his party. Though he lost the support of some of his fellow Republicans on Thursday, no one formally rose to challenge him.

“He’s personally well liked, and I think that’s important,” said Ross K. Baker, an expert in Congress at Rutgers University. “There haven’t been any coups mounted against Boehner, and I think that tells you something.”

But Mr. Boehner’s good-natured demeanor can sometimes work against him. As one House Democrat said, insisting on anonymity to avoid angering a leader, Republicans like him, but they do not fear him. The most difficult task for any speaker is to keep his party in line, a lesson that Mr. Boehner has learned the hard way.

“It’s a little bit like being the head caretaker of the cemetery,” said Representative Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican, describing the challenge Mr. Boehner faces. “There are a lot of people under you, but nobody listens.”

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