No matter what budget agreement is eventually reached, House Speaker John A. Boehner is likely to fall short of his own debt-deal red line: that every dollar in new borrowing authority be matched by a dollar's worth of spending cuts.
The Ohio Republican also finds himself taking fire from all sides -- Senate Democrats who say Mr. Boehner is putting his political prospects ahead of the country, and tea party leaders who say he wasted the GOP's leverage in both the shutdown and debt fights and squandered a chance to end the health care law.
Still, Mr. Boehner retains a giant pool of good will among fellow House Republicans who say nobody else could have done better in managing such thorny issues with so fractious a caucus.
"I think that most of the conference feels like he has been dealt a very difficult hand to play and he is doing as good as he can do with it," said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican. "I think he is doing as well as any human being can do."
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Boehner suffered another setback when conservative lawmakers, prodded by Heritage Action and other pressure groups, rebelled against his latest plan to end the government shutdown, extend the government's borrowing limit -- and at the same time -- try to make a dent in Obamacare.
The move essentially kneecapped Mr. Boehner and his lieutenants -- a scene that's played out repeatedly in the nearly three years he's held the top House job.
During that time, several outside groups have called on House Republicans to oust Mr. Boehner. And at the beginning of this year, nine Republicans voted for someone else for speaker, in a sign of discontent.
Still, the last few weeks have helped crystalize just how tough Mr. Boehner's job is and that there aren't any alternatives out there, said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who advises some House Republicans.
"I think he's in a better position with the caucus than he was even a month ago," Mr. McKenna said. "What's gone on is everybody's looked at it and said who could do a better job on this thing. Who could do a better job with the pair of sixes that we have, and the answer is nobody."
Mr. Boehner made his mark as a lawmaker by opposing earmarks, the special pork-barrel projects Congress stuck into bills, and by working for bipartisan deals. But his efforts to get bipartisan deals as speaker have run into trouble.
He won the first debt battle with Mr. Obama in 2011, passing the Budget Control Act that did match the debt increase dollar-for-dollar with new spending cuts -- though the debt was all front-loaded, while most of the spending cuts are still to come later this decade.
But President Obama's spine stiffened, particularly after he won re-election last year and Democrats ate into Mr. Boehner's majority in the House.
Mr. Boehner failed to win any spending cuts in February's debt deal, instead exchanging a three-month debt holiday for a promise from Senate Democrats that they would pass a budget.
Heading into this latest fight he again told reporters he would stick to his red-line rule of dollar-for-dollar trades -- but he ran square into Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said they won't entertain any strings attached to the debt deal.
That's left the House GOP -- and Mr. Boehner in particular -- to try to find some face-saving alternative.
Following a two-hour closed-door GOP meeting on Tuesday, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican, marveled at "how calm it was and friendly" in the meeting, and at the way Mr. Boehner has juggled the various factors of the GOP caucus.
"It was a conversation that we could not have had six weeks ago," Mr. Mulvaney said. Asked why, he said that "there was not much cohesion in the conference," but that Mr. Boehner helped change the tone by making sure that everyone had a voice.
"I think you get to the point that you feel like you can participate and when you have a meeting like that that, your leadership will listen to you and take it into consideration and that has really helped us come together as a group," Mr. Mulvaney said.
When Mr. Boehner emerged with a plan that would make several dents in Obamacare, including repealing a despised tax and requiring President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden to sign up for the health exchanges, Democrats were furious.
Mr. Reid accused Mr. Boehner of putting his own political future ahead of the country and of trying to scuttle negotiations Mr. Reid was having with his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
"I am very disappointed in John Boehner, who once again tried to preserve his role at the expense of the country," Mr. Reid said
Underlying much of the debate about Mr. Boehner is how he handled Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who, along with some vocal allies, wanted to reject funding the government until the president canceled Obamacare.
Mr. Boehner early on announced he wouldn't go that route, and even struck a deal with Mr. Reid. But he was force to recant after enough Republicans insisted he try.
"In all fairness, this wasn't John Boehner's strategy," Mr. McKenna said. "It was a battle he didn't really want on a battlefield he didn't pick, and he did what he could with it. Every honest member of the caucus would say that's right."
(c)2013 The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
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Original headline: John Boehner finds himself both the object of fury and sympathy on Hill
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