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In defeat, Boehner may live to fight another day

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boehner has seen his power tested in trying to corral conservatives
  • He told fellow members at a meeting: "I don't want everybody beating each other up"
  • President Obama doubts Speaker's ability to get things done, saying he can't control his caucus
  • Boehner has had to rely on Democrats previously to pass key bills

Washington (CNN) -- Only 61 people in the history of the United States have held the position. It's the second most powerful in the country and second in line to the presidency.

But after this week, not many people may want to be Speaker of the House.

John Boehner, the chain-smoking, politically moderate, congressman from southwestern Ohio who has held the job for the past three years, has seen his power to corral his Republican caucus tested.

He's just come out on the losing end of a ferocious battle with President Barack Obama to reopen the government and avert a possible default.

"We fought the good fight, we just didn't win," Boehner told a Cincinnati radio station on Wednesday.

A GOP congressman who was in a closed-door meeting late Wednesday afternoon with the caucus told CNN's Dana Bash: "Speaker Boehner said, 'Look, I don't want everybody beating each other up. I know this isn't everything we want, but we're going to live to fight another day.'"

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Boehner -- who despite his very public defeat is still safe in his job as the House leader, say some key conservatives -- received a standing ovation Wednesday afternoon during that meeting of the entire House Republican conference.

"I've actually been very proud of Speaker Boehner the last two-and-a-half weeks. I don't think that he should be ashamed of anything he has done," Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho told reporters.

But Obama has doubted Boehner's ability to get things done, saying earlier, "he can't control his caucus."

Still, Newt Gingrich, who held the position during the last government shutdown in the mid 1990s, put it this way: "It's actually the hardest job in the city."

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The inside game

Boehner has been challenged by the small but powerful right wing of the GOP caucus: the tea party conservatives.

He was reluctantly pushed into adopting a tactic to link the debt ceiling and funding the government to defunding Obama's signature health care plan, known as Obamacare, even though he was against the idea himself. Ultimately, that tactic failed.

But wrangling with the tea party isn't his only challenge.

His members range from the rebellious Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who publicly rebuked Boehner by calling instead for a "bold" leader, to Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, a Republican who represents an urban, Democratic-leaning district. And they all have different agendas and different ideas of how to push back against a Democratic Senate and a Democratic President.

Still, he needs their support -- he needs at least 217 of his 232 Republicans to pass a law -- because no Speaker wants to rely on members of the opposite party to pass legislation. That's the fastest way to lose power.

But, this time, he had to do just that. The entire Democratic caucus in the House -- 198 members, with two not voting -- voted "yes" on the bill to end the current crisis while 87 Republicans joined in to pass the law.

And this isn't the first time he's had to rely on that formula.

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The heavy lift

"Until you've tried it, you cannot imagine the energy level it takes to try to do what Boehner is doing," Gingrich said.

But the latest quagmire over government spending and the debt limit once again display Boehner's challenge.

Early on, many said Boehner would never get conservative members of the GOP to acquiesce on federal spending and the debt ceiling, and would need Democrats to get anything through.

Even when the stakes were highest and public opinion polling against his efforts, Boehner still struggled. He straddled the GOP caucus and the President in negotiations, but ultimately fell short.

As the tide was shifting and the Senate deal took shape earlier this week, Boehner made one last stab to get Republican demands attached to the bill. But he couldn't get consensus among the GOP and the effort collapsed late on Tuesday.

"It's a very severe problem if he gets beaten ... and if he gets beaten publicly," Gingrich said.

Instead of losing, Boehner simply didn't hold the vote.

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He's lost before

But this wasn't the first time Boehner came up short, struggling numerous times to find agreement.

Last year, he was forced to pull a bill providing aid to Superstorm Sandy victims because he didn't have enough Republican support.

And during the debt ceiling fight in 2011, spending cuts totaling $900 billion were not enough for some members of his caucus to agree to raise the debt ceiling. At the last moment he had to pull the bill and pull out of negotiations with the President.

Obama blamed "the extreme faction in his caucus" for handcuffing Boehner.

"So there are been repeated situations where we have agreement and then he goes back and it turns out that he can't control his caucus," Obama said.

Boehner and Obama have not successfully completed a negotiation. Other leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have had to carry critical negotiations over the finish line.

And Republicans got very little out of this deal. Obamacare is still law and government spending was not reduced. Furthermore, public opinion is blaming the GOP.

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Boehner the hero

Norman Ornstein, a Congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said this saga has been a "nightmare" for Boehner. But he said his speakership is not yet over.

"He is shaken but not yet fallen," Ornstein said.

"I think that Boehner has listened to the American people," Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots said.

One conservative group, Club for Growth, said they don't worry much about Boehner.

"We don't get a vote in who the Speaker of the House is," spokesperson Barney Keller said.

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The organization works to elect conservative members. They are notorious for running primary challengers against Republican incumbents who don't prove their conservative cred.

"If there are enough conservatives in the House, the direction of the House will take care of itself," Keller added.

Until next time

The deal to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling simply punts the same issues until early 2014.

It's likely that a similar fight will happen again in a few months, once again pitting Boehner in the middle of his Republican caucus and Obama.

In an interview on CNN's 'New Day," Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, clearly said what a lot of people in Washington are thinking.

"Obviously, I don't envy the position that Speaker Boehner has been in," she said.

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CNN's Deidre Walsh contributed to this report.

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