WASHINGTON -- Congress' debt-and-spending breakthrough crystallized a political contradiction.
House Republicans refuse to let their supposed leader, Speaker John Boehner, steer them toward big policy decisions, leaving him to endure repeated public embarrassments. Yet they rally around Boehner as much as ever, affirming his hold on the speakership Wednesday even as they choked down a Democratic-crafted bill to reopen the government, lift the debt ceiling and give Republicans only a few small concessions.
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"He's done a good job keeping us together," said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.
"I think his stock has risen tremendously, and certainly he has great security as our leader and our speaker," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Imagine the praise from Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, which Boehner described as the best deal he could get under the constraints his colleagues handed him. Hudson and Fleming were among the 144 House Republicans who voted "no," forcing their leader once again to pass a high-profile measure that most GOP members opposed. Eighty-seven Republicans voted for it, joining all the Democrats in the chamber.
Hudson and Fleming also are among the House's dozens of Tea Party-backed Republicans, whose disdain of compromise has vastly complicated the speaker's job. Even before Wednesday, House Republicans' habit of praising but not heeding Boehner reflected the Tea Party's devotion to putting principle above deal-making.
Boehner is a seasoned legislator. He constantly seeks 218 votes needed to pass House bills and scraps for the best bargains he can cut with Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.
Ho-hum, say many rank-and-file Republicans. While polls show Americans chiefly blame Republicans for the debt-and-shutdown gridlock -- and GOP Sen. John McCain declared "we have lost this battle" -- many of them seemed satisfied with the stand they made. That philosophy surely would have baffled many predecessors in Congress.
"The dynamics got much better," Fleming said, when Boehner "quit going to the White House to negotiate and he began to listen to us, to what we thought would work." Fleming called the debt and spending outcome an acceptable "stalemate." Democrats weren't able to reduce the "sequester" spending cuts they oppose, he said, and Republicans failed to delay or defund Obama's health care overhaul.
Republicans "lost the battle, but we're going to win the war," Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said of plans to keep attacking "Obamacare." In January, Huelskamp voted to dump Boehner as speaker. But he joined in Wednesday's standing ovation for Boehner in a closed-door caucus gathering.
"This is probably the best example of him following the 200 folks in our caucus who are conservative and are worried about Obamacare," Huelskamp said after the meeting.
Boehner said in a subdued statement, "Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president's health care law will continue."
Boehner lost control of the debt-and-shutdown debate weeks ago, when Tea Party-backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas launched a national drive to close much of the government if Democrats didn't agree to "defund Obamacare."
Senior Republicans called the mission hopeless. Boehner urged his colleagues to focus on the debt ceiling instead. The threat of government default, he said, would give them greater leverage to demand spending cuts from Democrats.
It's the same advice Boehner gave in January at a widely praised House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Republicans, he said then, must decide "where's the ground that we fight on? Where's the ground that we retreat on?"
Whatever progress Boehner made in Virginia was apparently lost this month, when scores of House Republicans joined Cruz's ultimately doomed crusade.
GOP lawmakers would have fared better "had we let the speaker pick the battlefield and the battle," said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. He said Boehner and his team did the best they could "with the mess that Ted Cruz's dead-end strategy left them." He said House Republicans appreciate that Boehner didn't say, "I told you so."
With the government now funded through mid-January, and the debt ceiling lifted a few weeks beyond that, some lawmakers say Congress is headed toward renewed partisan brinkmanship this winter.
"All this does is delay this fight four months," said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said Republicans erred by focusing on the government funding bill instead of the debt. But he doesn't blame Boehner.
"We're a body of independent contractors, each with his own constituency," Kingston said. Boehner, he said, "is going to be OK. You know, it's a pretty tough job."
Previous House speakers found that to be true, even when their caucuses followed their advice.