"He's doing a good job in a tough situation," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a Boehner friend. He said the speaker's challenges include "independent individuals" among House Republicans and the increased willingness of outside conservatives to pressure GOP leaders, not defer to them.
Portman said he didn't know if Boehner's tax bill debacle would weaken him.
"It proved to the president what he's been saying, that there are limits to how far he can go" in making concessions in fiscal cliff bargaining, said Portman. "But a win would have improved chances for an agreement" by demonstrating that Boehner could deliver votes.
"His own Republican team let him down and that always hurts a leader," said veteran Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
Republicans watching closely for overt or subtle moves by would-be challengers to Boehner said Friday they'd detected none, though such moves are notoriously secretive.
The entire House elects its speaker by majority vote on the first day of the new session. Because the 201 Democrats will probably all back Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the job, a GOP effort to depose Boehner would have to occur internally and before the full House votes so Republicans — with 234 seats — elect one of their own as speaker.
Possible candidates to replace Boehner, according to GOP lawmakers and aides, include Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, third-ranking Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia.
Cantor was at Boehner's side Friday as both men met with reporters. Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan lobbied colleagues for Boehner's tax-cut bill, giving Republicans angry over the measure little reason to turn to them as alternatives.
"I recognize why these questions are getting asked," conservative freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said about whether Boehner was in trouble. "I see nothing giving any evidence to that end. It was not a vote of no confidence on John Boehner. It was a legislative defeat, not a personal defeat."
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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