Different Approaches for Wielding the Gavel

John Boehner

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Henry Clay became speaker in 1811 on his first day in the House of Representatives. It took Nancy Pelosi and John A. Boehner 20 years apiece.

“Slow learner,” Mr. Boehner said with a chuckle, seated alongside Ms. Pelosi and former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert on Friday night at a tribute to Clay, their legendary predecessor. He called Clay a role model, “the first real speaker of the House that had some power.”

In fact, Clay elevated every future speaker by turning the office from a parliamentary referee into an instrument of the majority’s will. By the end of the 19th century, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed was flaunting his clout by telling adversaries: “Gentlemen, we have decided to perpetrate the following outrage.”

Those holding the gavel lately have used varying degrees of firmness. Mr. Boehner let the House kill a jet engine project benefiting his district, declining to intervene.

“I certainly wasn’t going to take $500 million and put it in my district just because I could,” Mr. Boehner said. He prefers, he explained, to “figure out where the consensus is and then begin to move.”

But there are multiple levels of consensus.

Among the Republicans he leads, the consensus opposes tax increases in the fight over curbing deficits and raising the debt limit.

Among the Democrats he shares power with, the consensus holds that tax increases must be part of any compromise.

So can he achieve consensus with President Obama, his ultimate negotiating partner, on reducing spending and raising more revenue?

“We’ll see, “ he said, smiling. “It’s going to be interesting what happens here over the next couple of weeks.”

Changes in Latitude

Steve Elmendorf, a Democrat and Congressional aide turned lobbyist, divides modern speakers into two types.

“Top down” speakers, like Ms. Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, wield authority aggressively. “Bottom up” speakers, like Mr. Boehner and Mr. Hastert, allow members somewhat greater latitude.

“I always had a coaching philosophy,” Mr. Hastert said, trading recollections with his two successors before 1,000 people at Transylvania University here on Friday. “If the coach was in the headlines every day, the team was in trouble; if the team’s in the headlines every day, the team’s doing pretty good.”

But even Mr. Hastert, now retired, held a scheduled 15-minute vote open for hours to browbeat colleagues into passing the Medicare prescription drug program in 2003.

“We had one chance to move that piece of legislation,” he said unapologetically. “And we were going to move it forward.”

Ms. Pelosi, on the losing end then, found that tactic too much. “That’s just really not the way” to legislate, she said.

Which is how Mr. Boehner felt about a Democratic majority using complex “reconciliation” procedures to push through Mr. Obama’s health care plan last year.

“Not my style,” he said. “I don’t think I would have squeezed the process in the same way.”

Ms. Pelosi insisted she hadn’t “squeezed” anything — just advanced the goals of her caucus in a way Clay would have approved.

“We established a great pillar of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for the American people, honoring the vows of our founders,” she said. “To make health care a right, not a privilege.”

“To the extent that you can have as much bipartisanship as possible, that’s what you would strive for,” explained Ms. Pelosi, who now leads the Democratic minority. But “we didn’t come here to make nice-nice with each other.”

A Chance to Cooperate

As speaker, Ms. Pelosi noted, she cooperated with Republicans on some goals, like banning smoking in the Capitol.

“They produce tobacco here in Kentucky,” Mr. Boehner, a smoker, cautioned in jest.

If only the debt limit fight were so easy. Even Clay, known as “the Great Compromiser,” might struggle to reconcile the views of the Tea Party and Mr. Obama.

The Treasury says Congress must raise the debt limit by Aug. 2 to avoid default. Mr. Boehner wouldn’t guarantee it, playing down warnings of financial havoc.

“Nobody in the world believes we’re going to default on our debt,” he said.

Appearing under the auspices of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, he called this “the moment” for Republicans and Democrats in tandem to shore up the government’s finances.

“One party would never deal with this problem — way too much political risk,” he said. “But we have an opportunity, because we’ve got divided government, to stand together and solve the problem.”

Yet all members consider a vote to raise the debt limit “one of the worst votes” they can cast, Ms. Pelosi acknowledged. With a hard-to-corral class of 87 first-term Republicans, she added, the current speaker “has all of my sympathy.”

“Do I get any votes?” ventured Mr. Boehner (he got 81 Democratic votes to help avoid a government shutdown in April).

“My advice is, good luck,” Mr. Hastert said.

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