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Conn Carroll: How Republicans got their groove back

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Opinion,Conn Carroll,Columnists,Politics Digest

Just two months ago, everything was coming up roses for President Obama in Washington. Nearly 60 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president, Republicans looked hopelessly divided, and he had just managed to raise taxes on the American people by $600 billion over the next 10 years.

One senior White House aide called Obama's tax hike "one of the most consequential policy achievements of the last couple of decades."

It's been downhill for Obama ever since.

None of his second term agenda items (amnesty, gun control or climate change) has advanced in either chamber of Congress. He has failed to win the "grand bargain" he so desperately wants on tax hikes and spending cuts, and his approval rating, at 45 percent, is not just below 50 but also below his disapproval (46 percent) in the latest Quinnipiac poll.

What happened? Republicans regrouped and learned to play like a team again.

Prior to Obama's big tax hike win this January, House Speaker John Boehner suffered a humiliating defeat when his "Plan B" fiscal proposal failed to get enough Republican votes to make it out of the House. The problem with Boehner's Plan B wasn't so much policy -- although it was far from perfect policywise. Plan B failed because it was sprung on an unsuspecting Republican caucus. There was no opportunity for a rank-and-file buy-in to the program.

A few weeks later, at the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Boehner moved to rectify that problem. The United States Treasury was set to exhaust its legal authority to borrow money by mid-February, and House Republican insurgents, led loosely by Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, wanted to use that threat of 40 percent cuts to federal spending to force larger entitlement reforms. Anyone paying attention knew Obama would have come out on top in such a showdown. Boehner would have been forced to end the borrowing crisis by agreeing to huge new tax hikes. That wasn't acceptable.

So Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., huddled with the more responsible conservative leaders of the Republican caucus, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as well as former Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio. Together, they drafted a plan to push the debt limit deadline until May in exchange for forcing Senate Democrats to pass a budget.

Republicans would also simply let the $85 billion in sequester cuts begin as scheduled. And to sweeten the deal for conservatives, Ryan promised that under those conditions, he could deliver a budget that would balance in 10 years.

With conservatives now unified around the Williamsburg plan, Obama quickly became his own worst enemy. He delivered a highly partisan and overreaching second inaugural address that further polarized Washington and unified Republicans. As sequestration approached, Obama dispatched his Cabinet secretaries to wage a campaign of fear, designed to pressure Republicans to agree to tax hikes to end the sequester.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said sequestration cuts had already caused teacher layoffs in West Virginia. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said 70,000 kids would be kicked out of Head Start. And Obama himself said Capitol Hill janitors would be forced to take a pay cut.

All of these claims turned out to be completely false. As people figured this out, Obama looked more like the little president who cried wolf. Meanwhile, House Republicans quietly passed legislation to keep the government funded through September, preserving the overall level of sequestration cuts but redirecting some spending items to better protect national and border security. Obama has now been forced to admit meekly that he has no choice but to sign the bill (assuming Senate Democrats don't sink it first).

There is still some turbulence ahead for House Republicans. The debt limit was once seen as a major obstacle for Obama, but it has now morphed into his last real chance to force the grand bargain he so desperately wants.

If House Republicans fail to unify around a plan to push the debt limit off till after the 2014 election, then Obama, and moderates like Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., will have a chance to pass another tax hike.

But if House Republicans stay unified, and keep playing successful small ball as a team, they should set themselves up for big wins in 2014 and 2016.

Conn Carroll (ccarroll@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.

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