John Boehner has a problem and John Boehner has a solution. Unfortunately, they don't go together.
First, his solution: show leadership to help pass an extension of the payroll tax cut. This Obama administration policy would provide relief for 160 million Americans, and would be a win for both parties in Washington, showing they can come together to address the needs of working families. In December, the House Republicans' insistence on budget cuts to offset the tax break stalled the deal. In the end, the pressure was irresistible—in part because of strong bi-partisan support in the Senate—and Boehner whipped his party into a two-month agreement.
This time, Boehner isn't waiting until the last minute. He isn't welcoming a revival of the pressure. He isn't embracing the mantle of Dr. No. Instead, he's announcing a change of heart and signaling support for the extension.
That's not a bad solution. Only it doesn't address his problem: whether his own caucus will go along with him.
In December, he thought he had struck a deal only to have the Tea Party Republicans hit the brakes. Just because he's found a way to avoid the negative attention and public outcry doesn't mean his more extreme colleagues will agree.
This won't be the first time they've been the Intra-Party of No. Tea Partiers hampered Boehner's vision of striking a "grand bargain" with President Obama on deficit reduction. They nearly caused his speakership to skid off the road with the politically-motivated debt ceiling crisis. Boehner got where he did in part by being a shrewd deal-maker. But now those who elected him to the speakership aren't letting him make deals.
If Boehner follows his party, he follows them off a cliff—or at least back into the minority—in the upcoming election. If he tries to lead them instead, it's not clear they'll follow.
He's taking that gamble today. It's not clear whether he's most interested in saving his party, his gavel or his reputation. He probably can't save them all. But by standing up for the extension, he is saving 160 million Americans some money—and maybe helping Congress save face, showing there are some policies that the leadership of both parties can collaborate on, and that Washington can work.
That is, if his caucus lets him. Time and again, President Obama has played Charlie Brown to the Congressional Republicans' Lucy, pulling the football away at the last moment. This time, Speaker Boehner may be the one preparing to kick, only to find his own party snatching the ball away.