As Boehner Ascends, His Power Comes With Caveats

John Boehner

Driven from his party’s leadership in 1998 and sidelined for nearly a decade, Mr. Boehner, a 61-year-old Ohio native who revels in his big-family, Roman Catholic roots, now faces the challenge of harnessing the Tea Party zeal that propelled him to power without disheartening those who might be expecting too much.

While he will preside over a substantial and energized Republican majority, Mr. Boehner must contend with a Democratic president with whom he has little personal history and a Democratic Senate leader who is disinclined to make Mr. Boehner’s life easier and who failed to consider hundreds of bills passed by the House even when his own party ran it.

“The problem is going to be the grass-roots movement out in the countryside,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican House member and Washington lobbyist who served with Mr. Boehner in the 1990s. “They have no sense of the limits on a party that controls only one of the three seats of power. Managing that relationship is going to be difficult.”

And that is just one of the problems confronting Mr. Boehner, a former small-business man who has been carefully preparing for his new role for months and seems to relish the chance to finally run the often-unmanageable House the way he believes it ought to be run.

“He has worked his way back, and he has thought this through,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia and part of Mr. Boehner’s inner circle from their days together in the House.

“But, gee whiz, it is not going to be easy,” Mr. Chambliss added. “We have a bunch of those House guys who are really on fire.”

Mr. Boehner’s expanded rank-and-file is populated by more than 80 newcomers — some with no elective experience — who do not seem of a mind to make the compromises that can be required when power is shared in Washington. And he sits atop a leadership team full of young and ambitious lawmakers eager to step up should Mr. Boehner falter, as did the last Republican speaker who engineered a House takeover, Newt Gingrich.

Though his job seems daunting, there are substantial opportunities as well. Mr. Boehner’s rise provides his party with a chance to recapture voters who lost faith with Republicans after they, by their own admission, spent too freely and engaged in misconduct when they last held House control. And he can showcase stark Republican policy differences with President Obama and Congressional Democrats in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential elections.

Given his own background, Mr. Boehner may have special credentials for the job of providing a bridge between Tea Party activism and Washington pragmatism.

He arrived in Washington in 1991 as something of a pre-Tea Party rabble rouser, confronting the entrenched Democratic leadership over its iron-fisted control of the House. After losing his leadership post in a Republican shake-up in 1998, he focused on committee work. As a party strategist and later as an effective legislator with close ties to lobbyists, the business community and other party operatives, Mr. Boehner has become a member of the city’s permanent managerial class, with an easygoing capacity to get things done.

At the same time, he was quick to recognize the importance to Republicans of the Tea Party movement and shared many of the fundamental sensibilities of the activists, notably his longtime refusal to accept spending on pet projects through earmarks and his criticism of federal spending.

“John Boehner is a legitimate conservative,” said Dick Armey, who became majority leader when Republicans claimed the House in 1994 and is now a leader of the Tea Party movement. “He was the first guy to raise the flag against earmarks years ago.”

Mr. Boehner and his fellow House Republicans moved quickly this week to demonstrate their commitment to less spending. They scheduled a vote for Thursday on a plan to reduce expenses of the House itself by $35.2 million, imposing reductions in salaries and expenses for leadership offices, committees and individual lawmakers’ office budgets.

“Cutting the cost of Congress is part of bringing to the people’s House the humility and modesty our constituents are expecting from us,” said a statement issued by the office of Mr. Boehner, who has studiously tried to avoid gloating in the wake of the Republican gain of 63 seats in November. He was not available for comment Tuesday.

But another legislative gambit of the new majority — setting a House vote on repeal of the health care law — illustrates the predicament Mr. Boehner is in. He can easily marshal the votes in the House to do so, but the effort is not likely to go anywhere in the Senate and would be vetoed by Mr. Obama should it somehow reach his desk.

And the rush to repeal has opened Republicans to the same attacks they employed so devastatingly on Democrats — that despite promises to run a more open House, Republicans are racing to overturn the health care law without hearings, without allowing floor amendments and without worrying about its impact on the federal deficit.

“They talk about making deficit reduction a priority, yet the first thing out of the gate they’re planning to do is to try to repeal health care reform, which explodes the deficit,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, said Tuesday. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the incoming majority leader, dismissed complaints about the health care battle and suggested that it was a special case that was “litigated in this last election.”

Mr. Cantor and other Republicans said the chief responsibility of the Boehner-led House would be to produce legislation, putting pressure on the Senate to take up the measures or face public discontent. “The Senate can serve as a cul-de-sac if that’s what it wants to be,” Mr. Cantor told reporters, “but, again, they will have to answer to the American people.”

As he takes over as a governing partner to Mr. Obama and Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, Mr. Boehner will be working with two members of the opposition with whom he does not have an extensive history, though they have some things in common — he shares a hardscrabble upbringing with Mr. Reid and an appreciation for golf with the president.

Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid met in Mr. Reid’s office for a little-noted private session on Nov. 17 and, aides say, Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama have talked by phone several times since the election. Mr. Obama also sent a birthday note to Mr. Boehner.

But Mr. Reid came out swinging against health care repeal, and Mr. Obama said the Republicans were mainly trying to appease the conservative base, comments that showed meetings and personal notes cannot paper over substantial differences. Still, Mr. Boehner, friends say, is enthusiastic about his new role.

“John is as excited as he would be about birdying the last hole and winning money from people,” Mr. Chambliss said. “He is pumped up and ready to go.”

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