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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Leaders of Congress met with President Obama yesterday at the White House. Whatever they said in private, they gave no indication as they left of any progress in ending the government shutdown.

SENATOR HARRY REID: We are where we are. We're not going to play. We're through playing these little games.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We've asked in a conference to sit down and try to resolve our differences. They don't want to - they will not negotiate.

MONTAGNE: That was House Speaker John Boehner, and before him, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Both are central players in the latest political crisis in Congress. And we have two stories this morning about how they are performing.

INSKEEP: Harry Reid has a soft voice, but the former boxer has used it to land some brutal blows. We'll hear more about him in a moment.

MONTAGNE: First, a look at Speaker Boehner and an effort to stay in front of his fellow Republicans. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: To understand John Boehner's role in the government shutdown, you have to understand the 30 or so House Republican hardliners and his relationship with them. It's an uneasy one at best.

BOEHNER: Listen, we've got a diverse caucus.

KEITH: This was Boehner in mid-September, shortly after the 30 forced him to ditch his original plan for a temporary government funding bill.

BOEHNER: Whenever we're trying to put together a plan, we've got 233 members, all of whom have their own plan. It's tough to get them on the same track. We got there.

KEITH: Boehner's plan would have almost certainly avoided a government shutdown, by letting House Republicans take what amounted to a show vote on defunding Obamacare. But the 30 wanted to take a harder line. The next day, Boehner held a rally in the Capitol, celebrating an overwhelming vote for a government funding bill that also defunded the health care law.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BOEHNER: You know, we had a victory today for the American people.

KEITH: Several of the members standing behind him cheering at that rally had been part of a coup attempt on the House floor back in January. Hardliners came within six votes of stripping him of his speakership, or at least forcing a second ballot. Things are better now.

Iowa Republican Steve King.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING: I think the speaker is stronger today than he was yesterday. And he was stronger yesterday than he was the day before. If we continue in that direction, we're going to be in pretty good shape.

KEITH: King thinks Republicans are winning this government shutdown fight. Many, including many Republicans, would disagree. When it comes to their constituents, though, the 30 - who overwhelmingly occupy safe seats in deep-red districts - aren't getting much pressure.

Ted Yoho is a freshman Republican from Florida.

REPRESENTATIVE TED YOHO: I come from a very conservative area, and my constituents are saying don't - don't blink. Don't cave in. Don't back up.

KEITH: The question everyone in Washington seems to be asking is whether John Boehner ultimately will blink and bring up what's called a clean CR. That's the short-term spending bill the Senate passed with Obamacare funding intact. It's widely believed that it would pass easily on the House floor with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman, another of the 30, says that would be a very bad idea.

REPRESENTATIVE MARLIN STUTZMAN: Passing a clean CR right now, I think, would be detrimental to our conference. It would hurt our speaker's negotiating ability in the future.

KEITH: And, says Boston College political scientist David Hopkins, it just could threaten Boehner's speakership.

DAVID HOPKINS: They don't like him, and they don't think he's one of them. But what he's worried about is that they might actually find some way to, you know, to depose him as speaker. And so I think that's why he's being as careful as he's being.

KEITH: Because Republicans have a relatively slim majority in the House, the 30 have more power than their numbers would make it seem. And Hopkins says there are at least 50 others who don't want any daylight between themselves and the 30, for fear of reprisal from outside activist groups or primary challenges. And, he says, the remaining Republicans haven't done much to discourage the hardliners, either.

HOPKINS: The way this has gotten portrayed has been the villains in this story are these 30 guys on the end, and the innocent victims are the rest of the Republican caucus. And I think the rest of the Republican caucus is implicated in this strategy. They've gone along.

KEITH: And as long as they're going along, there's no reason to expect Boehner to cross the 30.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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