By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In Congress' tense drama over how to extend payroll tax cuts for 160 million Americans, it may be the most intriguing subplot: whether Republican House Speaker John Boehner is losing his grip on members of his own party.
Boehner and many Republicans scoff at the idea.
But the House's rejection on Tuesday of a bipartisan Senate plan to extend the tax cuts for two months has raised questions about Boehner's efforts to lead compromise-resistant House Republicans who have helped ratchet up the tension in Congress.
The House's move drew blistering criticism from President Obama, Democratic leaders and even some Senate Republicans, many of whom called the House vote a symbol of the dysfunction that has plagued Congress this year.
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said the House vote reflected how Boehner has allowed Tea Party-backed conservative Republicans to overrun bipartisan agreements.
Van Hollen said that has been a constant theme in this congressional session.
And Scott Brown, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, called the House move "irresponsible and wrong."
"It angers me that House Republicans would rather continue playing politics than find solutions," Brown said. "Their actions will hurt American families and be detrimental to our fragile economy."
Criticism of Boehner focused on a key assumption: that in agreeing to the two-month extension on Saturday, Senate leaders in both parties had an indication from Boehner that he would go along with the plan, and push the House to approve it.
Boehner disputes that, and says he never suggested he would support the Senate plan.
However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has said the two-month plan came about in part because Boehner asked Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Senate's leading Republican, to devise a compromise that could pass the House while talks continued on a one-year extension of the tax cut.
Any hope the Senate plan could pass the House evaporated quickly.
One veteran Republican who was on Saturday's conference in which Boehner described the Senate plan to other House Republicans said Boehner initially urged lawmakers to support the Senate bill.
However, the Republican said, Boehner backed down when other lawmakers started criticizing the deal.
House Republicans, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, made clear they wanted to pass a one-year extension of the tax cut now - not after the first of the year.
Reid, however, has not agreed to call the Senate back to Washington for more negotiations over the tax cut.
As a result, debate over the tax cut - and other budget issues affecting millions of Americans, such as an extension of unemployment benefits and Medicare payments to doctors - are essentially hostages in a game of political chicken between House Republicans and the rest of Congress.
Not surprisingly, Cantor and other Republicans are seeking to pin the blame on Reid and Democrats.
Democrats, meanwhile, are making a point of questioning Boehner's leadership. They say he has lost control of the Republican caucus to Cantor and other aggressive conservatives backed by the Tea Party, which seeks to limit government and steadfastly rejects tax increases.
"We have a bipartisan compromise that would prevent taxes from going up in January," said Rep. Steve Israel, a new York Democrat. "The Senate agreed to it. House Democrats agreed to it. Lots of people agree to it. And now extremist Republicans in the House" are saying no.
'THE WILL OF THE MEMBERSHIP'
As they challenged Obama and Democrats to continue negotiating the tax cut, Boehner, Cantor and other Republicans made a point of showing a united front.
"We're proud of what we've passed," Boehner said.
Cantor and others rejected the idea that Boehner was being overrun by Cantor and other conservatives.
"Absolutely not," Cantor said when asked on MSNBC whether there was tension between himself and Boehner.
Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, acknowledged that Boehner, a 20-year House veteran, often sees things differently than many younger Republicans.
But, Sessions said, "John has sold himself as a person who will listen, a person who will be thoughtful and who will represent" the House, not just his own opinions.
"John has always said it is the will of the membership, not the will of the leadership, that is more important," Sessions said, adding that the tax cut episode might have "strengthened his hand (as speaker) because he listened ... and is trying to find a way to make the membership feel it is being heard."
Members of the party's conservative wing in the House, the Republican Study Committee, have expressed some frustration with Boehner even though its leaders support the speaker publicly.
Scott Garrett of New Jersey, a top lawmaker on the 170-plus member committee, said the group has confidence in Boehner's leadership. But others committee members have grumbled about Boehner's tactics, such as when he recently said the payroll tax cut had to be extended before consulting other Republicans.
"We lost any leverage to get a 12-month deal" with additional provisions Republicans wanted, one lawmaker said. "No one is trying to minimize the (speaker's) job. He has a tough, tough, tough job. Would someone else be better? Perhaps. You don't know."
Other Republicans say critics who have cast Boehner as being led around by his caucus may have a point.
They also say that many young conservatives in the House are more in line ideologically with Cantor, who aspires to be speaker, than the more moderate Boehner.
"I do sense that Boehner is in jeopardy of losing control," said a former House Republican leadership aide, who asked not to be identified.
"He is holding on, but he is clearly riding a bronking bull. He steers the bull one way and it bucks back the other way."
Like other Republicans, the former House aide does not believe Boehner is in danger of being ousted as speaker.
"He's excellent at positioning himself," the former aide said. "He's nimble and he's quick. When the House GOP conference said no (to the Senate tax cut plan), he quickly repositioned himself" against the deal.
Questions about Boehner's situation have drawn interest from investment analysts who track the U.S. government and its tax policies.
"I don't think (Boehner) has lost control" of the House Republican conference, said Dan Ripp of Bradley Woods, a private firm that tracks Washington for institutional investors.
However, Ripp said, "I do think that often he finds himself ideologically at odds with other members of the (House) Republican leadership as well as the Tea Party."
BOEHNER: 'IT'S BEEN A LONG YEAR'
The relationship - and occasional tension - between Boehner and Cantor has been one of the sideshows of this congressional session.
Boehner, 62, routinely is described by fellow Republicans as a consensus builder and pragmatist. In recent days he also has expressed frustration with the impatience of some younger conservatives in the House.
"Our freshmen over the last couple of weeks have been in this grouchy mood," Boehner said at a forum hosted by the Politico newspaper last week. "It's been a long year."
And in an unusually animated tone, Boehner noted that some members "want it all done now! Right now! All of it!"
Boehner is "less of a bomb thrower" than Cantor, 48, said one Republican House member. "And he tries to get consensus. When you're only in charge of one-half of one-third of the government, you have no choice."
Cantor, meanwhile, "is all business. He's a machine," the former House leadership aide told Reuters.
"Boehner goes to Ramparts (a tavern and grill in suburban Washington) to have a drink and smoke and hang out. Cantor would rather be focused on the next fundraiser."
House Republican lawmakers say the relationship between Boehner and Cantor has improved from what many described as a "low point" last summer, during the raucous negotiations between Congress and Obama over the federal budget and debt limit.
As Boehner huddled at the White House in July with Obama on ways to cut a "big deal" - one that could reduce future government budget deficits by as much as $4 trillion - conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill were getting wind that $800 billion in revenue increases were in the mix.
Fears that they could be asked to violate their "no new taxes" pledge and Cantor's line in the sand against any tax hikes, reverberated through House Republican ranks.
A veteran House Republican lawmaker said that during a summertime visit home, some major Republican donors began asking why Cantor was "sticking it to Boehner all the time."
"It's all nice to have palace intrigue," the lawmaker said. "But you don't want it to be out on Front Street. It was about to get out on Front Street."
Some House Republicans warned Boehner he had to distance himself from the talks with Obama and improve relations with Cantor and other conservative leaders, or risk a strong backlash from within his own party.
The speaker did so in two dramatic steps.
One handed Cantor a victory, as Boehner abruptly walked out of the budget talks with Obama.
Then, at a subsequent news conference where reporters peppered him about his relations with Cantor, the speaker threw his arm around his majority leader, in a show of solidarity.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Donna Smith and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by David Lindsey)