WASHINGTON -- After two difficult years of trying to manage the Tea Party class of freshmen that made him speaker of the House in 2011, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, now faces a new challenge: A new freshman class potentially as rebellious as the last.
Fewer new Republicans were elected to the House last November than in the wave mid-term of 2010, when 87 newcomers were swept into office. The newcomers promised to dramatically shrink government spending and shake up Washington and often refused to follow Mr. Boehner's lead on key contentious issues.
As Mr. Boehner begins his second term as speaker, the early indications are that many of the House's 29 new Republicans could be similarly willing to buck party leaders in pursuit of fiscal austerity.
Through two years of listening sessions and periodic blow-ups, Mr. Boehner earned the personal admiration of many of those elected in 2010 -- but never their unqualified support. He was hampered, for instance, in the drawn out drama over the year-end fiscal cliff by his inability to guarantee votes from his own members.
Now, with a majority thinned (Democrats picked up eight seats in November), he will have to start all over with a new cadre of conservatives, just as Congress will be forced to confront a series of difficult fiscal decisions.
Congress must raise the nation's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling by the end of February or risk a government default. At the start of March, broad cuts to military and domestic spending delayed two months in the fiscal cliff deal will kick in without action. And the funding mechanism that keeps the government running will expire at the end of March.
An increasing number of congressional Republicans, including some elected in November, said President Barack Obama is over-hyping the consequences if there is no agreement before the government's borrowing power runs out, an attitude that could make it less likely Congress will act.
They argue that tax receipts would provide enough money to pay off the nation's bondholders and fill Social Security checks.
Default is a "fake red herring," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., arguing that many government functions would cease, but Mr. Obama could "prioritize spending" to blunt the impact if he chose to.
And some of the new freshmen have shown already their willingness to go against leadership.
In their first act after swearing the oath, four newly elected Republicans declined to back Mr. Boehner as speaker of the House, representing one-third of the 12 members who opposed Mr. Boehner in an election the Ohio Republican only narrowly carried.
Next, 18 new members were among 67 House Republicans who voted against a first installment of aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy intended to help the national flood insurance program pay claims to beneficiaries.
"That says to me that we have a class that's ready to get serious about balancing the budget," said Rep. Tom Massie, R-Ky., who took office in November shortly after he won a special election and explained he could not support more funding for an insurance program that is already insolvent.
The new class includes fewer cable news bomb-throwers than the last class, which was peppered with citizen lawmakers who had never held elected office and prided themselves on how little they knew about Washington.
"They haven't been nearly as boisterous in the media," said one House Republican leadership aide of this year's group. On the other hand, the aide added, the immediate votes against Mr. Boehner represented a "boldness not seen among the Tea Party class."
Newcomers include big animal veterinarian Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida and Michigan Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, who owns a reindeer ranch and moonlights as a Santa Claus impersonator.
But the class features a number of former state officials and legislators and two members who have served in the House previously.
"I promised my constituents that we wouldn't do business as usual because business as usual was not getting the job done," said Mr. Massie, of his own vote against Mr. Boehner.
He said he will now support Mr. Boehner in debt talks but said his goal is to bring about major change in Washington.
Mr. Salmon, one of those who previously served in Congress returning as a freshman after running unsuccessfully for governor of Arizona and spending 12 years out of office, backed Mr. Boehner.
But said Mr. Salmon has been displeased with GOP negotiating tactics in past spending battles. The party must be tougher, he said, to force Democrats to make significant concessions.
"In every major negotiation squabble, we've come to the brink of disaster and then Republicans -- at least the House -- has kind of acquiesced," he said. "I just really felt like a message needed to be sent to him that everything isn't hunky-dory."
Several of the newcomers said they have been pleased by Mr. Boehner's rhetoric so far, assuring members he is done with backroom negotiations with Mr. Obama that they believe have been unproductive in the past.
After a fiscal cliff deal in which taxes were allowed to rise on those making more than $450,000 a year, Mr. Boehner has said talks now must be limited to spending cuts; Mr. Obama has said he will continue to insist deficit reduction be balanced between cuts and new tax dollars.
"So far, everything we've discussed as a conference indicates to me that we're totally aligned in our plans going forward: to have the tax debate behind us and focus like a laser on spending," said Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a Harvard educated Army veteran.
Mr. Cotton, who backed Mr. Boehner for speaker, said House Republicans are now unified behind his strategy.
"We realize that President Obama and his policies have driven us to where we are now. This is not an internal problem inside the House," he said.
But the sheer speed with which the new members must get up to speed before facing decisions with potentially economically rattling consequences could be difficult for House leaders.