House minority leader contemplates a leap up

Republican John Boehner will be speaker of the House if his party retakes enough seats in November. The Ohio congressman has shaped his party's response to Obama, but as leader, he'd face a dilemma.

August 21, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — On a Friday evening, hours after the House adjourned for summer, John A. Boehner was holding court on the patio of a favorite Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill. The scene was a still-life of old-school Washington power: plates of veal and pasta, half-emptied drink glasses, cigarette butts in an ashtray.

The Ohio Republican who could very well replace Nancy Pelosi as the next speaker of the House is vintage "Mad Men" — a grown-up, as those close to him put it, who unapologetically enjoys a drink, a smoke and a round of golf. His suits are sharp. His voice is deep. And then there is that tan, which defies Washington sensibilities.

Yet the Rat Pack persona disguises one of Washington's most enduring politicians, a savvy political survivor who is helping to shape President Obama's legacy — whether Republicans retake the House majority this November or not.

Over the last two years, Boehner has helped define the Obama era in ways that seemed unimaginable when the popular president was swept into office. Then, some in Washington predicted the end of the GOP.

Instead, the House minority leader has helped reinvigorate the party by directing his thinned Republican ranks in a disciplined chorus of opposition. They don't merely say "no" to the White House agenda, but "Hell, no!" — as Boehner put it during a final floor speech on healthcare reform.

If Republicans win the 39 seats they need to gain control of the House this fall, Boehner faces a pivotal choice: Will he emerge as the consummate deal-maker many know him to be, working with Obama to show frustrated voters that Washington can govern?

Or will Boehner, under pressure from a more conservative House and a "tea party" electorate, maintain a fiercely partisan strategy in hopes of making Obama a one-term president?

"My sense is if Boehner had an opportunity to do so, he would act responsibly," said Ronald Peters, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma's Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. "I don't know if those around him would go in that direction."

Boehner's desire to be speaker swirls about him these days. He tries to keep himself in check. But "Boehner for Speaker" mugs and T-shirts are selling for $15 each on the GOP website

"I've watched the four speakers I've served under," Boehner recently told reporters. "I've seen the good philosophies, and I've seen the bad ones. I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on how I would do this job."

Then again, if the GOP falls short of taking back the majority, observers say, Boehner's future is uncertain. Boehner declines to say whether he would remain as minority leader.

Like so many lawmakers before him, Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) came to Congress to change the institution, not to become it. Elected in 1990, he quickly established himself in the so-called Gang of Seven Republicans who instigated House banking and post office changes and shook up established Washington.

Boehner helped craft the 1994 "Contract with America" and won the No. 4 leadership position under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich after Republicans took over the House that fall for the first time in 40 years.

Boehner, though, is no Gingrich.

He does not dispense deep thoughts in the manner of Gingrich, a college professor and still a formidable force in national politics.

While Gingrich was guided by the contract, a 10-point manifesto on smaller government and personal responsibility, exactly what a Speaker Boehner would do remains a work in progress.

Boehner promises his No. 1 priority would be to "repeal Obamacare," the healthcare overhaul that is the administration's centerpiece legislative accomplishment. He also vows institutional reforms to open the House floor to debate and let the best ideas win.

Rank-and-file Republicans are eager to conduct extensive hearings into the Obama administration, using their subpoena power in confrontations that could resemble the Democratic investigations of President George W. Bush or Republican targeting of President Clinton.

Beyond that, the GOP agenda gets murky. Republicans say they are on a listening tour this summer, asking Americans for input to what some have dubbed the "Contract from America," an update to the 1994 legislative blueprint.

Boehner's own legislative career includes bipartisan work with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the "No Child Left Behind" education measure in 2002. That was at a period when Boehner had fallen from leadership. But as Republican leader, he has shifted to a more vocally partisan role.

One of 12 children of an Ohio tavern owner, Boehner is a former plastics salesman, a Catholic who prefers the traditional Republican ideals of smaller government and lower taxes to the heady discourse and moral crusades that have at times overtaken his party.

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