Choose me as your speaker, he told the group, “and I will return the House to the people.”
“The House is going to work its will,” he said, promising no more back room deals. “It’s going back to the noisy House the founders intended it to be.”
Republicans voted unanimously for Boehner that day, even though dozens of them were anti-establishment newcomers. Boehner had won the allegiance of most of the Tea Party freshmen by digging deep into his own campaign war chest to help them get elected.
As soon as the leadership vote was over, Republican aides were waiting in the wings with a cake that read, in green frosting, “Happy Birthday Mr. Speaker."
Fast forward to June 20, 2013.
The House was in session and was working its will, as Boehner, now in his second term as speaker, had promised.
But rather than passing legislation, lawmakers were engineering the stunning defeat of a half-trillion-dollar, five-year reauthorization of the farm bill.
Even though speakers normally don't vote, Boehner stuck his neck out by voting for the high-profile measure, which funds agricultural programs and food stamps. But dozens of GOP lawmakers rejected its high cost, and the bill was defeated 234 to 195.
The farm bill’s collapse led to widespread ridicule of the GOP leadership. Much of it was aimed at Boehner, whose laid-back style had already been blamed for the humiliating floor defeat of three other important bills earlier in his tenure, as well as several instances in which major legislation had to be yanked from the floor at the last minute for lack of GOP support.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Boehner’s predecessor as speaker, mocked the farm bill defeat as “major amateur hour.”
“Does John Boehner have any clout left after publicly saying he would take the rare act as Speaker of voting for the farm bill?” conservative blogger Erick Erickson tweeted. “Pasture time?”
Boehner and his leadership team eventually passed the farm bill by splitting it off from food stamps and voting on the two measures separately.
But the question of whether Boehner is put out to pasture is still not settled. It may well turn on how he handles a string of critical issues -- and his unruly Republican conference -- in the weeks and months ahead.
Congress must quickly pass a bill to fund the federal government, which is due to run out of money on Oct. 1, allowing just a handful of legislative days to come up with a compromise. Boehner is working to dodge a politically perilous shutdown by negotiating with liberal Democrats and President Obama, who are averse to spending cuts, while also trying to maintain the support of the same anti-spending GOP lawmakers who thought the farm bill was too costly.
Complicating matters is that a significant faction of Republicans are refusing to back a spending deal unless it defunds Obamacare.
This group, many of them driven by Tea Party politics, forced Boehner's leadership team to withdraw a bill from the floor that would have funded the government through Dec. 15. The bill did not defund the health care law, but would have forced the Democratically led Senate to vote on whether to defund it. Tea Party Republicans labeled the proposal a "gimmick."
Beyond the Oct. 1 spending deadline, Boehner will have to quickly fashion a deal on the debt ceiling.
The nation is expected to reach its borrowing limit in mid-October and many Republicans believe that if they can't defund Obamacare in the government spending bill, negotiations over the borrowing limit could provide new leverage.
Boehner has added another wrinkle to the debt ceiling fight by promising his anti-spending faction that he won’t increase the $16.7 trillion debt limit without equal cuts to the budget.
Looming over these fiscal battles is the unfinished immigration reform legislation, which sharply splits the GOP.
With so much division and so many critical issues ahead, some congressional experts fear there is no way to avoid a government shutdown or a default on the national debt, especially given Boehner’s aversion to strong-arming Republicans to fall in line behind his decisions.
“I’ve been trying to come up with reasonable scenarios of skating through this without some deep damage, but I’m having real trouble with it,” said longtime American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein, who is an expert on the machinations of Congress. “The stars are aligned for something bad.”
Not everybody shares Ornstein’s pessimism, but many analysts wonder how Boehner will thread the political and legislative needle and hold on to the speaker’s gavel.
“This is probably going to be the most difficult run of his speakership,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to Boehner’s Republican predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert.
Immigration reform could prove even more perilous for Boehner than the battle over the debt ceiling and government funding.
For now, the House only plans to take up GOP-sponsored bills that increase border security and visas for highly skilled workers, but nothing would prevent Boehner from bringing to the floor the comprehensive plan passed by the Senate that offers a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
If Boehner goes for broke on immigration reform, he'll face mutiny on his right.
"A lot of lawmakers in the conference would probably be frustrated to the point of looking for new leaders," Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said.
Don’t expect Boehner to use brass knuckles on GOP lawmakers, his friends say, even though the tough-guy approach worked for his predecessors.
Boehner served for years under the leadership of Hastert and his top deputy, Tom DeLay, of Texas, aptly known as “the hammer” for his ability to force even the most reluctant GOP member to vote his way.
“John was in that whole culture,” said Gary Andres, a top aide on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime Boehner friend. “He didn’t want to run the House that way.”
Boehner has cultivated a reputation as friend of the rank and file, a man who doesn’t hold a grudge and will buy lawmaker a beer at the end of the day even if he voted against him.
During his four years as minority leader, Boehner watched the arm-twisting leadership of Pelosi, who relentlessly cajoled her Democrats to go far outside their political comfort zones in order to pass Obamacare and a “cap and trade” measure aimed at addressing climate change. Pelosi, like her predecessor Hastert, made it easier by restricting the amendment process, leaving little room for the minority Republicans to defeat Democratic legislation with “poison pill” amendments.
Boehner didn’t like that approach.
“You can say Pelosi was very effective, but she was effective because she was raw, ruthless political power,” said former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio, another Boehner friend. “If you run it like the Bataan Death March, you are going to get things done.”
But as LaTourette noted, Pelosi’s legislative achievements caused dozens in her party to lose reelection, putting her in the minority after just four years.
The Pelosi and the Hastert leadership teams were sharp vote counters, a skill that many Republicans say is sorely lacking on Team Boehner.
Some blame the GOP’s humiliating floor defeats on the relative inexperience of Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, who was propelled into the leadership in only his second term as one of the Republican “Young Guns” who helped revive the stale Image of the party.
It was McCarthy who assured Boehner he had secured the votes to pass the original farm bill. He later claimed that Democrats reneged on their promises of support, but GOP operatives scoffed at his excuse.
“You have a whip with a lack of vote-counting skills,” a former Republican aide said.
The majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, was a protege of DeLay’s, serving as his Chief Deputy Whip.
But Cantor lacks DeLay’s keen sense of the dynamics of the House. The farm bill debate was a prime example. Cantor pushed for passage of a GOP amendment to increase the work requirement for receiving food stamps, which in turn cost two dozen Democratic votes for the overall farm bill. In the process, he torpedoed his own legislation, with an assist from Boehner, who had instituted the more inclusive amendment process. Both Cantor and McCarthy, meanwhile, are eyeing the speaker’s gavel for themselves, forcing Boehner to constantly look over his shoulder.
“Each one of these guys is afraid of their own shadow when it comes to the members,” the ex-GOP aide said. “The members are leading the leadership, not the other way around.”
Boehner insists that failed legislation doesn’t indicate a failure in leadership.
In an interview with CBS, he said passing legislation was never his primary goal.
“We shouldn’t be judged on how many laws we create,” Boehner said. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”
Indeed, conservative groups were delighted with the farm bill’s failure because they oppose the rapid growth of the food stamp program. And many conservatives are hoping Boehner never takes up comprehensive immigration.
Above all, Boehner has kept the promises he made to the rank and file back on his birthday in 2010.
“Everybody has a voice here,” Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., who was one of the incoming freshmen in the room that day.
The big question is whether Republicans will turn their voices against Boehner -- and whether the GOP will work its will by toppling the nice guy who believes in a collegial, civil House of Representatives.