There's a lot of talk on Capitol Hill that John Boehner's days as Speaker may be numbered – paving the way for the first Jew to hold that position. After indicating he was on board with the bipartisan deal to extend the payroll tax cuts worked out by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, he was forced to do a 180 under pressure from the Tea Party wing of his caucus.
The big question on Capitol Hill is not whether to tax cuts will be renewed – they will – but whether Boehner's job is safe and who's really calling the shots in the Republican caucus.
This is not the first time he has been embarrassingly out of touch with his own caucus; it was on full display during budget negotiations with the White House earlier this year when his deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, abruptly pulled out of the talks. The word was it came as a surprise to Boehner as much as it did to the White House and the Democrats.
Does this latest episode open the door for Cantor, who has privately criticized Boehner as not conservative enough and too ready to compromise, to fulfill his ambition to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House?
It's no secret that Cantor wants to move up, the only questions are how and when. With Boehner appearing out of step with many in his caucus, he could face a challenge when the 113th Congress convenes a little over a year from now. If not sooner.
There's an interesting historical irony to all this. Boehner was part of the GOP House leadership in 1997 that staged an unsuccessful coup to remove then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. Boehner was exiled to the wilderness for years but fought his way back to become Speaker.
Now he's the one looking over his shoulder at his deputies and wondering about their loyalty.
"Cantor has been aiming to knock off Boehner for a longtime," a longtime Hill watcher told me, "it's obvious he’s waiting til the right moment to polish this guy off."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell believed Boehner had given his tacit agreement last week that whatever compromise the Senate worked out on extending the payroll tax cuts would be good enough for him.
Boehner's surprise reversal over the weekend raises the question of who's in charge in the House GOP caucus.
In an unprecedented move, Senate Republicans openly criticized House Republicans as obstructionists. Among them were Senators John McCain of Arizona, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who said,. “It angers me that House Republicans would rather continue playing politics than find solutions.”
Boehner's attempts to lay the blame for the impasse on President Obama and Senate Democrats was transparent to the point of being laughable. "Nothing passes 89-10 around here anymore," said one Hill staffer.
Even the GOP's house organ, the Wall Street Journal, was stunned by how badly McConnell and Boehner “thoroughly botched” the payroll tax debate. "We wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest." The undynamic duo managed to be blamed for opposing the tax holiday, a Journal editorial said, and letting Obama "position himself as an election-year tax cutter."
Meanwhile, the White House was having a grand time pointing out how Boehner had undercut McConnell and most Senate Republicans. The President chided Republicans about playing brinkmanship and told them there are more important things than "internal caucus politics."
It's almost as if whoever came up with Boehner's strategy is secretly getting paid off by the Obama campaign.