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Obama reaping a long-awaited backbone bonus [Commentary]

It may have been a long time coming, but President Barack Obama's decision to stand up to the obstructionists in Congress that led to the 16-day government shutdown in October has begun to pay off.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, recognizing the self-inflicted damage his Republican Party suffered then, has confronted the tea party and other naysayers who caused that shutdown by striking a compromise on a very modest budget deal.

Mr. Ryan's negotiations with his Senate committee counterpart, Patty Murray, has led often pliable Speaker John Boehner to dress down conservative outside pressure groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth for trying to throw a monkey wrench into the deal.

"They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," Mr. Boehner said. "This is ridiculous." In scolding the groups, Mr. Boehner was facing the political reality of that shutdown: the heavy price the GOP paid for allowing it and will continue to pay unless it accepts compromise in a divided government.

Mr. Obama's firm stand in October also beat back the Republican drive to defund his prize first-term legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, as the price to end the shutdown. Many of its GOP critics in Congress, while continuing their opposition, essentially began to show a white flag in the fight, until the botched rollout of "Obamacare" gave them new life.

In the last month, however, as the website glitches eased and 365,000 applicants were able to sign up, the president has found grounds for some hope that his public support, badly hit in the fiasco, will stabilize. In the last few days, he has brought an effective manager from the Bill Clinton administration, John Podesta, into the White House to oversee the needed Obamacare recovery.

The question now is whether the modest Republican willingness to compromise on the latest budget deal will lead to comparable elasticity on other key legislative issues, notably including immigration reform, between now and the midterm congressional elections. Both parties now look to them to break in their favor the condition of divided government that has been at the core of the legislative paralysis.

Until then, the president may well have an unwitting ally in Mr. Boehner, given the speaker's decision to act the adult in the room toward the aggressive and even belligerent tantrums of the ultraconservative offshoots of his party. They have chosen to view Mr. Ryan's new flexibility as treasonable to right-wing ideology and all-or-nothing tactics of the tea partiers.

The new firmness of Mr. Obama's political spine has been brought into question often in the past by carping liberals in his own party. So has Mr. Boehner's backbone been suspect, crumbling as he has in the past to the fresh House Republican recruits who have added more fuel to the culture of confrontation. It remains to be seen whether each will stand firm on compromise going forward.

Mr. Obama may have the easier task now, with Democrats in Congress circling the wagons around him on the rebooted Obamacare. They have no choice politically but to root and work for its salvation, for their own sakes and hopes of regaining full control on Capitol Hill next November.

Mr. Boehner may have the harder job maintaining Republican unity in the House, as civil war threatens over this new whiff of bipartisan compromise. He needs moderate establishment members of his caucus to make a similar pushback against the unruly newcomers if he is to hold his ground.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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