John Boehner worked the room on Tuesday night the way he would any other Capitol Hill reception or fundraiser. There were no chants of "Speaker!" or "Boehner!" or "U.S.A.!" There was no receiving line; no one gave any speeches or toasts. But the Republican Party's top watering hole, the Capitol Hill Club, was the venue for a special party: one for a couple hundred family and friends, four busloads from Ohio. The next night Boehner was scheduled to host a bigger, more elaborate function at the Library of Congress, where he would receive those he was supposed to invite: the people he needed to thank and the members of Congress who helped get him elected to his new position. But on Tuesday, Boehner savored the moment before being sworn in as the 61st Speaker of the House with his nearest and dearest, a glass of merlot and his favorite Cincinnati chili five-way. He moved through the overflow crowd, poking fun at what he considered bad haircuts and getting gently ribbed by his buddies. "Speaker Boner," teased Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and a frequent dinner buddy of Boehner's for a dozen years, making fun of his oft-mispronounced name.
Over the holidays, Boehner enjoyed what could be his last break for a long while. He kept in touch with his leadership team members via phone and e-mail as they moved offices and laid out an agenda for the 112th Congress. But he also snuck in as many golf games as the Cincinnati December weather would allow and attended his family's annual Christmas party at the Terraqua Club in Reading, the town he grew up in. "He was kicking around, getting the cobwebs out," says Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and one of Boehner's closest friends.
Next week, Boehner will see his House try to repeal President Obama's health care law (a move some have criticized as purely symbolic, since the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to follow suit). He'll have Tea Party freshmen demanding his attention while he figures out how to cut tens of billions of dollars in 2011 discretionary spending, as he has pledged to do. He'll have to find a way to coax enough of his deficit-leery conference to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling, lest the country default on its IOUs. And he'll have to force the House to figure out ways to save $35 million in operating costs as he strives to trim the fat from the budget, starting with his own offices. But, not yet.
The first week of Congress often feels like the opening ceremony at the Olympics. Incoming members campaigned for this moment for months, if not years. In Boehner's case, he was in training to become Speaker for 20 years since he first hung a portrait of his hero Speaker Nicholas Longworth, a fellow Cincinnatian, in his office in the early 1990s. The political athletes wave their flags and stand on podiums to deliver speeches. Boehner, though, has eschewed much of the pageantry that usually accompanies a triumphant new Speaker. He's not the rock star or mascot Newt Gingrich was in 1994 or the history maker Nancy Pelosi was in 2006, when she became the first female Speaker. He skipped the week's only swanky event, a fundraiser on the roof of the W Hotel with singer LeAnn Rimes. He even left his Capitol Hill Club party just after 8 p.m. so he could get to bed early, though on this special day he skipped his usual 5 a.m. bike ride down the Mall with a coterie of Capitol Hill police.
Before being sworn in on Wednesday, Boehner a devout Catholic who once said he had prayed 12 days straight in church before deciding to run for the House attended a bipartisan Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church, a few blocks from his office. It was the first time he had attended services with most of his family since his brother Bob's son got married five years ago. Boehner is expected to give his acceptance speech as Speaker around 2 p.m. E.T. Ten of his 11 siblings in order of age (Boehner is the second eldest), Bob, Steve, Nancy Roell, Rick, Lynda Meinke, Drew, Pete, Jerry, Sue Kneuven and Michael will be in the gallery above watching him, while the rest of his friends and family watch from the Cannon caucus room. The siblings many of them criers like their brother all brought extra tissues for the speech, says Bob Boehner. "The American people have humbled us," John Boehner will say, according to prepared remarks. "They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people's House. This is their Congress. It's about them, not us."