John Boehner will face a sea of challenges as House speaker

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2010 

WASHINGTON — To hear House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner tell it, many of America's economic ills were cured the moment that Republicans won control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night.

"I think the most immediate thing will happen the day after the election," Boehner predicted at a July breakfast. "We're not going to raise taxes. ... We're not going to have cap and trade (carbon-emission limits) on the House floor. Removing that uncertainty that exists today will do more to help America's employers than anything we do."

With Republicans gaining control of the House — effective in January — the question now is how Boehner, R-Ohio, will lead his new majority, one fueled by tea party anger and powered by a perceived mandate to shake up Congress.

The answer is, it won't be easy, political analysts agree. While Boehner maintained near-unanimity among Republicans after Democrats won the House in 2006, it's now expected that he'll have to harness a combustible mix of establishment GOP lawmakers and a new flock of no-retreat-no-surrender GOP freshmen once he takes the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

And whatever a Boehner-led House might accomplish in terms of legislation over the next two years, it's likely to face obstacles from the more deliberative Senate and from President Barack Obama's veto pen.

"Mr. Boehner will be in some degree of difficulty in handling the factions in the majority coalition," said Carl Pinkele, a political science professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. "There are going to be rigid tea party types. Boehner will be obligated to the tea party, and to establishment Republicans who chair committees. It's a lot easier to be cohesive when you're in the minority and you have an objective and an enemy."

Boehner isn't as recognizable as Pelosi or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. He's probably best known for his year-round tan — which he says is natural, not sunlamp-induced — his passion for golf and his chain-smoking cigarette habit, which he's in no hurry to quit.

Boehner is a self-professed creature of the House. He's a well-tailored, 10-term lawmaker with strong ties to lobbyists. He loves to legislate and isn't averse to striking deals with Democrats — he fondly recalls working closely on education issues with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. — which could rub some new GOP lawmakers the wrong way and stir backroom tensions in the House. It also could encourage his potential GOP rivals to look for an opening against him.

"What you probably have here is a leader who will look where the troops are going and run a little faster, and look to see if Cantor is going to stab you in the back or if Pence will stab you in the chest," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington.

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., is the House minority whip, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., is the chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Boehner's allies say that his even keel, forged over a sometimes rocky congressional career, will be an asset in leading the new majority.

"He appreciates that power ebbs and flows. He understands that power can be fleeting," said Michael Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, and a House aide during the 1994 GOP takeover. "The biggest challenge he'll face is dealing with expectations from some of the new members and the American people, particularly the conservative base."

Boehner's expected elevation to the speaker's chair will cap an extraordinary rise, fall and renaissance for the 60-year-old lawmaker, a night-school graduate who's the second oldest of 12 children and the son of a Cincinnati neighborhood bar owner.

Standing before cheering supporters at a Republican victory rally Tuesday night in Washington, Boehner exhibited one of his famous traits: a penchant for tears.

"I started out mopping floors, waiting tables and tending bar at my dad's tavern," he said. "I put myself through school, working every rotten job there was and every night shift I could find. And I poured my heart and soul into running a small business."

Asked Wednesday about the emotional moment, Boehner said, "It gets difficult to talk about my background or talk about my family. I thought I was going to be in good shape, but not as good as it turned out."

After becoming the first college (Xavier University) graduate in his family, Boehner went to work for a plastics-packaging business that he eventually took over and turned into a big success.

Boehner’s office declined a McClatchy request for an interview, but in speeches and interviews in the months leading to the elections, Boehner outlined how he'd run the House and his immediate agenda.

"I believe that the health care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world and bankrupt our country," he said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference. "That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that’ll bring down the cost of health insurance."

However, repeal is unlikely, as Democrats probably retain enough power in Congress to block it, and Obama retains his veto.

Boehner also has called for extending tax cuts and reining in federal spending to be priorities. On spending, he's called for ending the practice of rolling many federal programs into comprehensive spending bills in favor of requiring specific votes agency by agency.

"Members shouldn't have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA," he said last month in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. "Each department and agency should have to justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own."

Some Boehner allies suggest that he'll propose a package of substantial spending cuts — in the $100 billion range — to keep conservatives and tea party supporters happy.

In addition, Boehner has indicated that he wants to change the acrimonious atmosphere in Congress. Just as Pelosi did when she campaigned for speaker, Boehner has called for more transparency in the House by posting bills online three days before any vote so the public can read them, and by having more open debates on the House floor, with a free flow of amendments.

"Yes, we will still try to outmaneuver each other," he told the American Enterprise Institute. "But let's make it a fair fight. Instead of selling our members short, let's give them a chance to do their jobs."

Boehner was first elected to the House in 1990. He quickly became one of seven GOP House freshmen backbenchers — a so-called "Gang of Seven" — who made names for themselves by hounding the Democratic House leadership for a check-bouncing scandal in the chamber's bank.

Once Republicans gained control of the House in 1994, Boehner rose to House Republican Conference chairman, the fourth-ranking leadership job. In that position he developed ties with lobbyists.

His coziness with Washington's K Street lobbyists resulted in an embarrassing moment in 1996, when he distributed checks from tobacco lobbyists to Republican colleagues on the House floor, a move he later apologized for. He also helped pass a rule that forbids distributing donations on the House floor.

After Republicans lost five House seats in 1998, Boehner was voted out of the GOP leadership. He plunged into his legislative work and re-emerged in 2006 after a Texas indictment forced House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to resign his post.

Boehner ran for majority leader, sending the 230-member GOP caucus a 37-page road map for a "majority that matters." He won, and he's led the House GOP ever since.

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