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POLITICS: PennAve

John Boehner reins in rank and file with midterms looming

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Immigration,John Boehner,Debt Ceiling,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Tim Mak,House Republicans

Some of Congress' most conservative Republicans, who just months ago willingly shut down the government to try to get their way on Obamacare, had threatened to be just as disruptive in February when it came time to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

They planned to block the increase -- risking a government default -- unless President Obama and Senate Democrats made unspecified concessions. With Obama refusing to negotiate at all, both sides braced for yet another partisan crisis.

Then suddenly, the chances of a fight appeared to be fading. Republican leaders indicated that they would not allow February to pass without raising the debt ceiling. With the president's demand that no negotiations take place on the issue, the most obvious way to fulfill that GOP desire is to give the president a clean bill without further demands.

"I don't think we Republicans want to default on our debt," House Speaker John Boehner said. "The president's made clear he doesn't want to negotiate. … The options available continue to be narrower in terms of how we address the issue of the debt ceiling, but I'm confident that we'll be able to find a way."

Boehner has a delicate balance to maintain: assert that the debt ceiling should be raised while respecting conservative demands for concessions.

"The Republican leaders have made it more explicitly clear than they have in other times in the past that they don't want to go down this path," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "But they are not saying to their rank-and-file members, 'Screw you all, we're just going to do this clean debt ceiling.' "

The turn of events in the debt ceiling fight highlights a shift in Republicans' election-year tactics and Boehner's new assertiveness over his raucous rank and file.

In addition to defusing the debt ceiling fight, Boehner urged members to back a bipartisan budget deal to keep the government open for the rest of the year. His members also agreed to a compromise farm bill that was deadlocked for two years and ultimately cut food stamps by far less than House Republicans wanted. And now the speaker is said to be exploring options to pass immigration reforms long resisted by some of his members.

"Boehner has a bit more traction in the aftermath of the shutdown. We saw it as well with the farm bill. … It was an example of saying, 'We can't go down a path where these things blow up in our faces and take away from our central objective,' " Ornstein said. "[The Republican leadership's] attitude is: We're trying to highlight the failures of Obamcare. Don't distract us from that goal."

Despite his members' fervent opposition to granting citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants, Boehner late last year hired Rebecca Tallent, an experienced immigration adviser who previously worked for people who supported legalization. His own members are waiting to see what Boehner will propose, and he's remained coy about it.

"We're going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform, and have a conversation with our members,” Boehner said. “And once that conversation's over, we'll get a better feel for what members have in mind.”

While the Republican priority for most of the year will be on job growth and pressing the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act, the outcome of last year’s congressional dysfunction appears to have given the speaker more latitude to assert his will.

Still, Boehner’s staff plays down the contrast between a series of compromises Republicans have already agreed to this year and the willingness last year to risk so much politically for the sake of conservative principles.

"While he's always learning from experience, the speaker's leadership style has remained consistent through his time in Congress, and will continue,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Examiner.

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