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After DeLay, in his own flameout, went down as majority leader, Boehner defeated his successor, Roy Blunt, in 2006. As odd as it sounds, Boehner was considered a fresher face. "One leader after another fell by the wayside," Chambliss says. "John continued to move in a positive direction." As minority leader, he struggled to keep his conference united behind President Bush, especially on hot-button issues like the bank bailout. But ever since Obama provided a foil, Republicans have fallen in line. And now Boehner has landed the job of his dreams. The sole portrait in his first Capitol office was not of President Reagan but of former Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio. He often strategized about winning the Speakership with his close friend and chief of staff, Detroit native Paula Nowakowski, who died suddenly in January. At Trattoria Alberto Tuesday night, much of Boehnerland sported Detroit Red Wings lapel pins in her honor.
The Coming Collision
So what sort of Speaker will he be? How will he leave his mark on the House? If there's one issue that illustrates Boehner's personal beliefs and leadership style, it's earmarks, the pet projects that members of Congress slip into spending bills. Boehner has personally taken a principled stand against pork. He has never requested an earmark for his district, telling his constituents that if they're looking to raid the Treasury, they should elect someone else. But in 2006, when Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona was crusading against earmarks, Boehner pressured him to stop embarrassing fellow Republicans and booted him off the Judiciary Committee when he refused to do so. So Flake had to chuckle this year when Boehner sent a letter to Republicans warning that they would lose committee assignments if they requested earmarks. The political winds had shifted. "It's easy to find religion in the minority," Flake says. "We'll see what happens if we win back the House."
Here's a hint: the Pledge says nothing about earmarks.
In other words, Boehner is not the kind of leader who gets way in front of his caucus. He is more of a listener than an arm twister, but he does reward loyalty, and he has warned his conference that anyone voting for Democratic budgets or more recently, against a move to embarrass the ethics-challenged Charlie Rangel could lose committee assignments. He lets members say their piece but not endlessly. At one meeting with his lieutenants, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina laid into him for failing to attack Democrats over some procedural shenanigans on the Rules Committee. Boehner finally interrupted: "When your opponents are committing suicide, Ginny, get out of their way." He doesn't backstab or hold grudges; he gets along with former rivals like Pence and Blunt. "He's a member's member," says Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who was ousted from leadership by Boehner in 2008. "You can do business with John."
That can be taken in more ways than one. For the other key to Boehner's leadership style is money. This past summer, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a House Republican until 2001, said other Republicans described Boehner as a lazy leader who spent too much time in bars. But he's a tireless fundraiser who headlined more than 160 campaign events this cycle alone, raking in $46 million for Republicans. He remembers whom he owes and who owes him. When Representative Tim Murphy, who had not paid dues to the House GOP campaign committee, asked for his help on an energy issue, Boehner replied, "Why should I help you?" The next day, Murphy chipped in $30,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House. When moderate Republican Joseph Cao voted against the stimulus, Boehner contributed $5,000 to his campaign the next day. In both cases, everyone involved says the timing of the contributions was coincidental, but House Republicans got the message. They know that Boehner's annual cross-country bus trip he covered 6,000 miles (9,700 km) this summer tends to stop in the districts of the most loyal members.
To Democrats and many in the media, "tireless fundraiser" is just a nice way of saying "bagman for K Street." Boehner received $32,000 from clients of corrupt GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He's raked in $2.6 million from the financial sector. When he chaired the Education Committee, Sallie Mae gave him $122,500 and his daughter a job. His lavish parties an annual beach bash, golf tournaments in four states are practically lobbyist conventions. But there's never been evidence of a quid pro quo. The New York Times recently had to correct an otherwise unchallenged story about his close relationships with corporate lobbyists because it suggested one of them had "won" his vote against cap-and-trade and other Obama policies that Boehner clearly would have opposed anyway.
Boehner has said that as Speaker, one of his top priorities would be opening up the House and lowering its partisan temperature. Establishment Republicans are particularly irked by the Democratic attacks on Boehner, because by comparison with some Republicans on the Hill, they see him as the White House's best hope for adult dialogue with the GOP next year. Boehner has had a civil relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a close one with the Democrats' more moderate majority leader Steny Hoyer. "He's not an ideologue, and there will be a lot of pressure on him to do more than throw rocks," Cole says.
But the pressure to throw rocks is about to become even more intense. It is an open secret in Washington that Boehner's harder-edged deputy, Eric Cantor, a protégé of his longtime rival DeLay, has his eye on the Speaker's job someday. Young Guns, Cantor's new book co-written with fellow leadership colleagues Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, barely mentions Boehner. The lack of a compliment is returned with interest. "They are well qualified and ready to take my place ... at the appropriate moment," Boehner quipped at the young guns' book release, swirling a glass of red wine. It was a good line, but that moment could come quickly if Boehner fails to keep the Tea Party fed. And it's hard to see how Boehner could work closely with Obama when so much of the GOP base regards the President as a socialist usurper.
Boehner has said he hopes to avoid a government shutdown. He was in the Republican leadership in 1995 when Gingrich forced the last one, and he remembers how it killed the GOP's political momentum. But it's not clear whether Boehner truly believes that a government shutdown would be a bad idea or just that getting blamed for it would be. In any case, his conference is already committed to blocking or defunding health care reform and freezing the stimulus inevitably setting it at odds with Obama and its new members are likely to be even more confrontational. A collision is coming, and the question of whether Boehner truly wants it is almost irrelevant. "It wouldn't surprise me if we repeated some of those lessons from 1995," says Representative Steven LaTourette, a Boehner ally from Ohio.
In 1995, after all, the resurgent Republicans sounded a lot like they do today, promising less spending and less government and denouncing the liberal overreach of the Democratic Party. If they go with Boehner's preamble strategy "We're not going to be any different from what we've been" it's hard to see why the results should be any different from what they've been.