By JOHN BRESNAHAN and JAKE SHERMAN, POLITICO
Just three months after reaching rock bottom during the 16-day government shutdown, the Ohio Republican seems like he’s hitting his stride.
Boehner is the most confident and carefree since he took over the speaker’s gavel. His looseness was on display last week on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. Boehner publicly acknowledged that it was his party that caused the disastrous shutdown, joked about foreign governments spying on the United States, compared himself to the Gestapo and even entertained talk about his perpetually tanned skin tone. Furthermore, Boehner has recently tackled his critics on the right and is increasingly happy to talk about his party’s efforts to overhaul the immigration system — a touchy subject for many in the GOP.
At the halfway point for the 113th Congress, Boehner’s good mood comes as President Barack Obama is increasingly frustrated with Capitol Hill. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama is expected to say he will bypass Congress to enact an agenda by executive order. But to pass immigration reform or increase the debt ceiling, Obama will have to work with Republicans and an increasingly confident Boehner.
Those close to Boehner say the trauma of the first government shutdown in 17 years was the turning point for the speaker. Since January 2011, Boehner had warned Republicans to avoid a shutdown and the threat of debt default.
But just 11 months after winning a second term as speaker in January 2013, Boehner couldn’t prevent the shutdown from happening, a sign of his internal weakness. And since he couldn’t stop it, he decided to own it. Boehner led his party down the path of near-certain failure, keeping Republicans afloat even when he knew his party was being battered in public. Boehner couldn’t avoid it, so he had to embrace it and play out the hand that his colleagues had given him.
This damaged Boehner’s image nationally, as well as among Obama and the Democrats. Yet among House Republicans, the fact that he didn’t waver helped Boehner solidify his position with conservatives who were deeply skeptical of him. Members feel he was loyal to them, and they’re now returning that sentiment.
“He’s probably more at ease in the job then he has been,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Boehner’s closest House friend and ally, who will retire at the end of this Congress. “I think a lot of it comes that after the shutdown, a lot of people saw that was a fool’s errand. He was proven correct and came out of it much, much stronger.”
The long-term implications of Boehner’s new attitude are not quite clear. Boehner’s political prospects are a source of constant chatter in Republican circles. Some lawmakers and aides are convinced he will retire, others are convinced he’s staying put. All of them have noticed a change in Boehner, though.
“I have seen a real difference in the fact that [Boehner] seems much more relaxed when the fires are burning in certain places these days,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a Boehner ally.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), another close ally, said: “I don’t want to say that I’m seeing the ‘Old John,’ but I’m seeing the John that I know. It looks like to me … that he’s enjoying [his job] more than he did in the past.”
The return of the “Old John” has Boehner acting like a freed man on a wide range of topics. Following a challenge to his reelection as speaker in 2013 — and a rough year full of pushback from his right flank on everything from the debt ceiling to government spending — the speaker is starting 2014 on sounder footing.
In unprecedented language, Boehner attacked outside conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth in early December, blaming them for helping provoke the shutdown by pressuring rank-and-file House Republicans to defund or repeal Obamacare, a losing strategy that Boehner and other top GOP leaders knew would eventually fail.
“Frankly, I think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said on Dec. 11. “They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government.” Boehner and House GOP leaders have continued to exchange barbs with the groups since then.
Boehner allowed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut a budget deal with his Senate counterpart, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, and pushed that spending package through the House with a strong bipartisan vote. The Ryan-Murray package spent more money than conservatives wanted, but it ended the threat of another government shutdown.
“Look at what he has had to deal with,” Ryan said of Boehner during a recent event in Texas. “He has kept our caucus together. And I believe just look at 2013, how difficult of a year that was, he has done a fantastic job of keeping our caucus together. That just goes without saying.”
Ryan removed himself last week from consideration as speaker if Boehner were to step down or retire, leaving House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as the near-certain choice to replace the Ohio Republican.
Boehner has finally taken the idea of a “grand bargain” with President Barack Obama on taxes and spending off the table, freeing him up to seek smaller policy deals with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Democrats, as occurred in the budget talks.
Boehner has talked up the possibility of doing an immigration reform package, despite serious concerns about such a move from conservatives and other leading House Republicans such as Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), according to GOP insiders. Like the budget deal, Ryan is taking a leading role in these discussions.
Boehner even did an appearance last week with Leno. Besides responding to barbs about his perpetual tan and last name, long fodder for comedians, Boehner jokingly suggested that he had to act like the “Gestapo” when his members didn’t fall into line. Boehner even admitted that the shutdown was a dumb idea.
“When I looked up, I saw my colleagues going this way,” Boehner said of the shutdown. “You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk. So I said, ‘If you want to go fight this fight, I’ll go fight the fight with you.’ But it was a very predictable disaster.”