By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON (AP) - It's been just a month on the calendar but seemingly a lifetime in politics since House Speaker John Boehner got a pricey bottle of red wine from President Barack Obama as a birthday present, a feel-good image that the speaker's aides tweeted far and wide.
The 63-year-old Ohio Republican has been caught up ever since in a monumental struggle over taxes and spending aimed at keeping the country from taking a year-end dive over the "fiscal cliff." Obama is tugging Boehner one way in pursuit of a budget deal, while conservatives yank the other way, some howling that he's already going wobbly on them and turning vindictive against those in his party who dare disagree.
Altogether, it's been more bar-room brawl than friendly wine-tasting for Boehner, whose job as speaker is at stake right along with the nation's economic future.
With Obama's re-election giving Democrats more leverage over Republicans, and far-right critics pushing a (hash)FireBoehner hashtag on Twitter, Boehner is in an incredibly tight spot.
To which the undaunted speaker responds: "I remain the most optimistic person in this town."
In truth, there aren't too many Democrats lining up to buy Boehner wine, or too many Republicans advocating his dismissal.
The baritone-voiced Boehner has a reputation as a deal-maker and a survivor. At least within his own party, he may be in a better place now than he was during a rough first two years as speaker that produced few solid accomplishments, pushed big budget decisions down the road and saw already-low congressional approval ratings sink even further.
The election that felled presidential nominee Mitt Romney, thrashed Senate Republicans and narrowed the GOP majority in the House also rid some of the loudest tea party voices in Boehner's fractious caucus and gave pause to other Republican legislators who felt their speaker had been too accommodating of Democrats in 2011 debt negotiations. Those talks collapsed at the 11th hour.
Now Obama and Boehner are right back at it, negotiating in person, by phone and by intermediaries, as they trade offers and counteroffers over huge questions about tax rates and spending. Obama wants more tax revenue, Boehner more spending cuts.
Questions about how far Boehner can be pushed, and at what personal price, are swirling everywhere from the Oval Office and the Capitol rotunda to late-night television.
"Saturday Night Live" played Boehner for laughs in a recent skit showing Obama defending a despondent speaker with a perpetual tan against Republican bullies who made him sit alone in the House cafeteria and threw his milk in the garbage. "You leave this poor orange man alone!" the stand-in president said.
Boehner may well be known for his tan, and for tearing up easily, but he's no pushover, says Alan Simpson, a Republican who was co-chairman of the president's deficit commission.
"He's strong and he's used to taking a lot of crap," says Simpson. "Once you're in that situation, you're going to work your way through."
Ron Peters, a University of Oklahoma professor who's written extensively about House speakers, says the fate of the talks may come down to Boehner asking himself, "as all speakers do: What do I want to be remembered for?"
"He's in a position to do something historic," says Peters. "And so what he needs to do is lead the Republicans through the process to get the deal that will become a legacy."
It's a huge moment for a speaker who grew up as one of 12 children in a working-class family in suburban Cincinnati, helping out in his father's bar. That upbringing taught Boehner important skills for managing his raucous Republican fold, including an often under-rated ability simply to let people vent.
"He does not treat information as a commodity to be guarded against," says GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide. "He is not somebody who is caught by surprise, because he goes through the painstaking process of making sure he's listening to all of his members."
Boehner's getting an earful these days, intelligence that helps to inform his negotiations.
Obama drew a colorful sketch of his negotiating partner during the 2011 budget talks, as quoted by author Bob Woodward: "He's a golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, country-club Republican who's there to make deals."
Boehner helped fill out that portrait as he described the scene at one of their negotiating sessions.
"All you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I'm sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking merlot, and I look across the table and here is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette," he told Woodward.