WASHINGTON — John Boehner is pulling back. After two stressful years as Washington's most powerful Republican and a pair of failed, high-profile rounds of budget talks with President Barack Obama — and disappointment over Obama's re-election — the battle-scarred House speaker has adopted a you-first approach to the Democrat in the White House, his allies who control the Senate and anyone else who wants to work with them.
Upcoming across-the-board spending cuts set to slam the economy in two weeks? Boehner says a solution is up to Obama and Senate Democrats.
New ideas to prevent gun violence? Let's see what the Senate can pass, Boehner says, then we'll take a look.
Immigration reform? Boehner says it's best left to bipartisan working groups in both the House and Senate.
And the litany of new initiatives unveiled by Obama in Tuesday's State of the Union address?
"If he's got such good ideas, his party in the Senate could pass it," Boehner told The Associated Press in an interview in his Capitol office. "Then we'd be happy to take a look at it."
Boehner's almost Zen-like approach is a break from the experience of two years ago. Fortified by dozens of tea party freshmen, he and the GOP House stormed the Washington battlefield with abandon, winning some concessions on spending but seeing many initiatives killed by the Senate and overshadowed by the presidential campaign.
Boehner has taken political heat from Republicans for two failed rounds of budget talks with Obama in which he got ahead of the GOP rank and file in offering Obama new tax revenues. He left both sets of talks, accusing the White House of shifting demands and being unwilling to address major spending programs.
"Frankly, every time I've gotten into one of these high-profile negotiations, you know, it's my rear end that got burnt," Boehner says.
Boehner also suffered in some GOP quarters after a subsequent tactical retreat last month when he scheduled a vote on higher tax rates for top earners rather than allow the full menu of Bush-era tax cuts to expire. A surprising number of tea partyers cast protest votes when he was re-elected as House speaker last month. A Superstorm Sandy relief bill for the Northeast drew strikingly little GOP support from lawmakers outside the region.
Now, as the government lurches toward automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as a "sequester" that are set to drain $85 billion from the Pentagon and domestic programs, Boehner is acting as though it's not his problem.
"Remember, this is the president's idea. He insisted on this," the speaker says. "And until he puts forward a plan to replace the sequester and his Senate Democratic colleagues pass it, we're going to be stuck with it."
Some of Boehner's reticence to tackle the sequester may be rooted in weakness. He notes that the House has acted twice to block the cuts, which the Pentagon warns will gut the military. But those votes came last year and that legislation died when the new Congress convened in January just days after a sequester replacement effort squeaked through on a 215-209 vote.
More of Boehner's most ardently conservative Republicans are embracing the cuts as the deadline nears, and it's not clear he could muster the votes to try to replace them with an all-GOP approach.
Boehner suffers from the perception that he needs to watch his step to avoid provoking his tea party-laced rank and file into rebellion, and that can mean the House sometimes acts only when a crisis is near. But he's not afraid to maneuver the GOP House to places where it has to go in spite of tea party opposition, like the recent tax vote and bipartisan spending bills that passed with Democratic support.
"I've got to tread carefully," Boehner acknowledges. "But there's nobody that has more guts to take on his own party than I do."
Facing four more years of Obama, he isn't rushing in to grab the limelight on signature initiatives like immigration reform and proposals to reduce gun violence. It's time, he says, to let the rank and file roll up their sleeves and learn how to legislate. The test case is immigration reform.
"I want to encourage this bipartisan cooperation that's under way. I think it's really important, not only for this issue but important for other issues that could come up," Boehner says. "It's good to let these members continue to work. If I weigh in on one side or the other, all it does is make it more difficult."