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Election aftermath: Behind John Boehner's new tone

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By Jake Sherman, Carrie Budoff Brown and John Bresnahan
For POLITICO.com

Speaker John Boehner thinks he's learned from his mistakes.

After his secret debt negotiations last year with President Barack Obama sparked a sharp round of blowback from conservatives, his leadership and members of his House Republican Conference, Boehner has launched a carefully choreographed campaign on the high-stakes fiscal cliff talks.

The new strategy was unveiled Wednesday in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol. But before that, just hours after Mitt Romney lost his bid for the White House, Boehner sent a copy of his 11-minute speech to Rep. Paul Ryan, sure to be a conservative power center in the House Republican Conference. His leadership team got a peek as well.

“This is where I’m going,” Boehner told his leadership colleagues, according to sources familiar with the conversation. The message — there should be no surprises what he’s aiming for.

Boehner’s speech — there were 17 versions of it before the final draft — was read Wednesday from a teleprompter, almost unheard of for the off-the-cuff Boehner.

Every word seemed carefully chosen. Boehner quoted from the Bible, mentioned former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous tax compromise with Ronald Reagan and pleaded with Obama to lead.

Boehner sounds like a man ready to make a deal, but he has an excruciating negotiating task in finding something that somehow passes muster with an invigorated second-term Democratic president, a reinforced Senate Democratic majority and a conservative House majority.

Boehner said he was prepared to raise new revenue for the government — but not increase tax rates — as long as the White House would agree to entitlement reform. Republicans were “ready to be led,” Boehner said, attempting to shift the burden for what comes next squarely onto Obama’s shoulders.

Boehner’s and Obama’s 2011 talks over the $4 trillion “grand bargain” collapsed under the weight of mutual suspicion and distrust. Both sides blamed each other for the failure.

Now, Obama’s win has changed all of that. Taxes are set to jump on all Americans Jan. 1, providing a hard backstop for a deal. There is a new urgency among Republicans to reach some agreement with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Boehner thinks he has more room to maneuver with his own colleagues, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who aides excruciatingly note is on the same page as the No. 1. He has laid out his principles in public. In the summer of 2011, Boehner was negotiating with a president up for reelection, a House filled with red-hot firebrands and a leadership team dragged down by internal staff warfare. This time, his party has suffered an electoral beat down and Obama has run his last campaign.

Boehner seems to have given up on repealing Obamacare — the birth moment for the tea party movement that propelled him into the speaker’s chair in 2010. He told ABC News on Thursday that “the election changes that” and “Obamacare is the law of the land.” His staff later softened that stance.

Illustrating the shift, Boehner’s immediate goal is a legislative solution that gets the country past the Dec. 31 expiration of the Bush tax cuts and implementation of defense and domestic spending cuts. Boehner is seeking an extension of current tax rates that could run alongside new provisions that generate additional revenues, spending cuts and an expedited process for tax and entitlement reform to be kick-started in 2013.

Obama is preparing, too. He spent Thursday behind closed doors at the White House, meeting with senior staff and settling on a negotiating strategy. Neither the president nor his top aides have spoken publicly about what their next steps are because they say he first needed to hear from Republicans about what they want.

Obama and Boehner will both speak to the media Friday. Boehner will take questions, Obama won’t.

It’s far from clear whether the negotiations will prove fruitful. Boehner has to sense the temperature of his conference when Congress returns next week. Will they think they need to tack to the right to win back voters, or cut a deal in order to prove to the American people they are responsible partners in governing? And the Senate always presents problems — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection in 2014, further complicating matters.

The two sides remain sharply at odds on their approach to a grand bargain. Boehner’s pledge to raise revenue through the Tax Code doesn’t go far enough for Obama. The president’s starting point is that taxes should go up for families that earn more than $250,000 a year — and unlike the past, the White House says the president won’t back down.

Boehner’s operation thinks Obama could cave; they note he waited for six months in 2011 to agree to spending cuts alongside the debt ceiling increase. The White House thinks Boehner’s position is untenable.

The House Republican leadership is taking the long view this time and hoping it greases the skids for success.

Since Boehner gave the speech, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and his whip operation have called more than 120 House Republicans to gauge their reaction. By week’s end, they’ll have reached out to the entire House Republican Conference. When they return, McCarthy will meet with small groups of Republicans to feel them out for opposition.

At the staff level, the talks have actually begun. Boehner’s policy director, Brett Loper, has met informally with the Obama administration. Top aides to Boehner and Reid have also quietly huddled.

Inside Boehner’s operation, planning for these talks began in September on the second floor of the Capitol.

Boehner chief of staff Mike Sommers, Loper and Dave Schnittger — a Boehner hand from the Ohio Republican’s early days in D.C. — took to the famous “Board of Education” room to begin planning for two scenarios: a Romney win and an Obama victory.

A Romney victory would’ve looked like this: tax rates extended for a year, with tax reform teed up for 2013 and get home for the holidays.

But the trio realized that if Obama won, Boehner would have to stake out a position quickly.

On the Friday before the election, after a 45-day jaunt across the country in a jet with aides and a healthy Capitol Police detail, Boehner’s senior staff flew to Ohio to meet with the speaker in his West Chester living room to wrap up planning. It was just hours before the massive Romney-Ryan rally in Boehner’s hometown.

After a 13-stop bus tour across Ohio — Boehner’s bus was called “Freedom One” — Boehner voted Tuesday morning, then headed back to D.C. to watch returns in his political office on Capitol Hill. He appeared at the Republican National Committee’s election night event — where he sketched out his broad opposition to tax hikes.

On Wednesday morning, after Romney lost, Boehner called Ryan from his Capitol Hill apartment, urging him to come back to Congress “as soon as he’s ready.”

At 3:07 p.m., after Boehner spoke to Obama, he noticed a discrepancy in the speech, which was to be delivered at 3:30 p.m.

“Mr. President, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives stands ready to work with you to do what’s best for our country,” the prepared text read.

Boehner then told Schnittger to go to the teleprompter and add a line: “And that’s exactly what I told the president earlier today.”

Jake Sherman, Carrie Budoff Brown and John Bresnahan are reporters for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.
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