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For Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the fight over current spending levels was always about the bigger debates still to come.

Since November’s election, conservatives have been bullish, perhaps too bullish, on their prospects of making wholesale changes to the federal government and spending levels. With Democrats still in control of the Senate and the White House, Boehner, the seasoned legislator, understood that much of what his eager conservative base expected wasn’t possible, or might only be achieved through the most incremental of steps.

By engaging in a protracted, often ugly partisan fight with Democrats, Boehner not only demonstrated to his Conference his commitment to spending cuts and showed his zeal for imposing conservative policies on the Obama administration, he illustrated with textbook clarity just how difficult it will be to implement a conservative agenda.

When Boehner presented his Conference with a compromise spending bill late Friday night, Republicans largely hailed it as a success and lauded Boehner’s ability to force Democrats and the Obama administration into a historic discussion of how to cut spending.

The agreement Boehner was able to cut is impressive — in addition to cutting spending by a total of $38.5 billion this year, he was able to force Democrats to accept a number of policy riders they had opposed.

But the agreement’s significance for Boehner has less to do with the immediate fight over cutting this year’s spending and more to do with how he manages his Conference over the next few months. Just ahead are momentous debates and votes on raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget for fiscal 2012. Boehner’s handling of the continuing resolution negotiation is now the platform he’ll use to lead his party on those issues.

“It will help him,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who will be one of Boehner’s chief lieutenants in marshaling support for the budget and the debt limit and whose job as a whip could have been immeasurably complicated had Boehner failed in the spending fight.

Freshman Rep. Michael Grimm explained that Boehner not only demonstrated to his Conference a willingness to fight with Democrats, but also showed some in the Conference that the spending dispute is only the first step in a broader fight.

“I absolutely think it will help. … I think the Speaker did a great job,” the New York Republican said, adding that Boehner’s gains were significant considering “we control only one-half of one-third of the government.”

Grimm and others said that lesson, and the goodwill within his Conference that Boehner built, should serve him well in the future, particularly during the debate on the debt limit. Although conservatives have strongly opposed an increase, the practical reality is that the debt ceiling will need to be raised this year or the government will risk defaulting on its loans, which is likely to have significant implications for the economy. House Republicans are widely expected to tie the debt limit increase to mandatory spending reductions over the long term.

Boehner and his leadership team will face a difficult task in selling a debt increase to their Conference, and a significant part of their pitch will be based on Boehner’s credibility with rank-and-file conservatives and their willingness to believe he cut the best deal possible with the White House and Senate Democrats.

“He brought us back a historic cut in spending. We haven’t done anything like this since we demilitarized in World War II,” Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said of Boehner. “He was up against tough odds, and I thought he did a terrific job. So his first victory made history, and I’m hoping that it will repeat itself.”

Likewise, Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price pointed to the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to hold votes on GOP policy proposals as evidence of how hard Boehner worked.

“Those are pluses that I don’t think many of us dreamed we would be able to get,” the Georgia Republican said.

To be sure, Boehner did not secure nearly as much as some in his Conference had hoped. The deal fell $22 billion short of the House’s original $61 billion in spending cuts, which left some conservatives unhappy.

And the agreement includes no policy riders defunding Planned Parenthood or restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to control greenhouse gas emissions — two key issues conservatives had demanded.

Those disappointments will likely be significant in the long haul. Boehner had originally hoped to pass the final spending bill with at least 218 Republicans so Democrats would not be needed. Such a show of GOP unity was important for Boehner’s long-term strategy, aides said, because leadership believes it would reduce defections on the budget deal and the debt ceiling votes.

But it now appears unlikely he will get to that level of support when the finalized CR deal comes to the floor later this week. Following Friday night’s conference meeting, Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said, “I think there’s a significant number of no votes,” and over the weekend tea party organizations criticized the agreement. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) praised Boehner and the deal before saying that although it was good, it wasn’t good enough for him.

Boehner’s decision to freeze out his leadership team for almost the entire negotiations also ruffled some feathers, and while his strategy was successful, it remains to be seen whether that will have any lasting effects on the leadership’s ability to work together.

But for now, even those who are opposing the agreement were praising the GOP leader.

“I appreciate the Speaker’s effort; he’s got a tough job, he’s got to deal with Harry Reid and Barack Obama, I understand that,” Jordan said. “I appreciate his effort. We’re impressed with his effort, we just didn’t like the final product, and we’re going to vote against it.”

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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