Not long ago, it seemed to many observers that the House of Representatives was a case of the tail wagging the dog, with Speaker John Boehner unable to keep in line many of his fellow Republicans, especially freshmen who came to Congress riding the 2010 Tea Party wave.
Now, however, the big dog seems back in control.
Some of the signs are subtle, some not. But as he faces off with President Obama during fiscal cliff negotiations, Boehner enjoys a stronger position with House Republicans than he had during earlier showdowns with the White House.
In a paradoxical way, Obama's re-election victory coupled with congressional Democrats adding to their numbers may have helped Boehner. Some of those wins came at the expense of the Tea Party, the conservative movement whose affiliated House members have been very willing to stand up to Boehner.
In recent weeks, Boehner has seen his preferred candidate for a House Republican leadership position win and has gotten his entire leadership team to sign his tax-raising, fiscal-cliff counteroffer.
Less subtle was his crackdown on several GOP lawmakers viewed as unreliable: He approved their loss of committee assignments.
And reports of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia breathing down Boehner's neck, once common, are now scarce.
'Somewhat Unprecedented' Reversal
History suggests that speakers start with high inventories of power only to see them diminish, says Matt Green, a Catholic University political scientist who wrote an examination of speakers titled The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.
In contrast, Boehner's power as speaker started at a relative low point in January 2011 and has risen from there.
"It's not unusual for speakers to have divisions within their party they have to manage," Green said in an interview. "And it's not unusual for speakers to have rivals to the throne. It is somewhat unprecedented, though, to see speakers starting off their tenure at a severe disadvantage and then cementing their power later, which appears to be happening right now with Boehner.
"Usually the pattern in recent decades is the opposite, where a new speaker has strong support, a broad base of good will and then, later, they start to see problems within their party and their power starts to dissipate. [Newt] Gingrich is a classic example of that. Going back further, folks like Carl Albert [in the 1970s] and John McCormack [in the 1960s] became less influential."
Though Boehner has appeared to consolidate support within the House Republican Conference, he has antagonized conservative activists away from Capitol Hill with some of his latest moves. His fiscal-cliff offer containing tax increases on the wealthy that would come from closing loopholes and capping deductions — and the punishment of House members viewed as wayward — drew criticism, as NPR's Tamara Keith recently reported.
Reading The Tea Leaves
Despite complaints from conservative activists and bloggers, however, Boehner remains the most powerful Republican in Washington with his control of one half of the legislative branch. And at least within his House Republican Conference, things are now going his way.
Case in point: In a secret ballot last month, his preferred candidate, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state beat Rep. Tom Price of Georgia for a top post within the House Republican hierarchy. And Price had the support of some of the bigger names in the House GOP conference, including Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Rep. Mike Pence, the governor-elect of Indiana.
John Feehery, a Washington political consultant who once served as press secretary for Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, described that victory as important for Boehner in internal politics.
"That was a message that the [Republican] conference as a whole has read the tea leaves," Feehery wrote in a blog post in which he also ticked off other indicators of Boehner's strength.
And Boehner's ousting of several lawmakers from positions on popular committees like the Budget and Financial Services panels sent the kind of message that Speaker Joe Cannon in the early 20th century was known to send.
"Cannon did the same thing. Stick a few dissidents on a bad committee like the Acoustics Committee and the message is read loud and clear." Members of that ancient House committee actually had the thankless job of checking the sound quality in the House chamber. Fortunately for those present-day House GOP dissidents, that committee is long defunct.
Up Next: Dueling With Obama
"It's vindictive," complained Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, talking to reporters after a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference on Wednesday. House GOP leaders booted the congressman from the House Agriculture Committee, an assignment important to his district and state.
"It's not a message to me. It punishes my constituents and I still represent them," Huelskamp said. "It's meant as a message to the Republican conference in general, especially the comment today [that Boehner reportedly made at the meeting] that there may be more punishment coming if you don't vote the right way."
But Boehner, who was first elected to Congress in 1990, has little time to appreciate his improved circumstances. The Republicans' absolutist stance against increasing tax rates on the wealthiest as part of a fiscal-cliff agreement has placed Boehner on a collision course with Obama, who is an absolutist in favoring such an increase.