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Meet the new speaker

Campaign 2010 | A 20-year House veteran, John Boehner has gained the confidence of his Republican colleagues-including social conservatives who are confident that he will advance their cause

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.-In January 2002, President George W. Bush hailed "a new era" as he signed into law his education reform, No Child Left Behind. Rep. John Boehner, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and other lawmakers surrounded him. Despite opposition from conservative members, Boehner (pronounced "BAY-nur"), who chaired the House education committee at the time, had shepherded through NCLB with bipartisan support.

One conservative Republican who served on the House education committee, Pete Hoekstra, was peeved with the reforms, but not with Boehner, who had given him space to air his disagreements. "I fought John more than anyone else on No Child Left Behind," Hoekstra told me. "I did everything I could conceivably think of to take down that bill. He did everything to beat me every day. He never held a grudge. . . . I respect him for that."

Many conservative lawmakers say this is typical of the man who will likely become speaker of the House in January: Boehner, they say, is conservative on many issues and respects conservatives when he disagrees with them. When Boehner became minority leader he installed Hoekstra as the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, a powerful position. "John went out of his way to make me feel included," said Hoekstra, who is retiring this year.

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As speaker, Boehner, 60, will have more than 240 members to lead, and they will range from libertarian Tea Partiers to moderates who won swing districts. Social conservatives will be a big part of that mix. And while the social conservatives say values issues aren't Boehner's driving passion, they say he listens. One of the highest priorities for social conservatives in the next Congress will be passing legislation to ban federal funding for abortion, and they think Boehner's skill at strategizing and pulling votes together will be crucial in that effort.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Boehner learned how to lead early in life: He grew up the second-eldest of 12 siblings. With so many in one house, his Roman Catholic parents, Earl and Mary Anne Boehner, slept on a pullout couch for a time. Boehner remains Catholic but rarely mentions his faith: "It's very personal, very private, and very real," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, Boehner's closest friend on the Hill. (Boehner himself declined an interview request in the days leading up to Election Day.) Latham and Boehner have dinner together most nights when they're in Washington: Latham said they always pray together for the country before they eat.

Boehner and his siblings attended Catholic schools. He spent nights and weekends mopping floors in Andy's Cafe, the bar his family owned in Reading, Ohio; these days, Latham said, Boehner enjoys a glass of red wine at dinner. After graduating from Xavier University Boehner became a salesman at the plastics company Nucite Sales, worked his way up to president, and became a millionaire in the process.

Boehner won a seat in the state legislature in 1984 and moved on to a seat in the U.S. House in 1990. (His wife Debbie-they've been married since 1973-lives back in Ohio, and his daughters, Lindsay and Tricia, are grown.) He was one of the "Gang of Seven," freshman Republicans who crusaded against the House banking scandal, in which members of both parties overdrew their bank accounts without penalty. Working as deputy to Newt Gingrich, he helped draft the "Contract with America" that helped the Republicans win the House in 1994. He then became Republican Conference chairman, the No. 4 spot in the GOP House leadership.

But as Gingrich flailed as speaker and the party experienced losses in 1998, Boehner's colleagues ousted him from leadership-a low point for him. "There were some times when on the inside there was more disappointment and turmoil than you could ever imagine," he recalled to The New Republic last year. "But I was never gonna let anybody see it on my face."

Boehner fell back to work in committees and became chairman of the education committee in 2001-where he led the No Child Left Behind effort. (He calls that his "proudest achievement" in government.) In 2006 Majority Leader Tom Delay, indicted for money laundering, stepped down from leadership, and Boehner beat out Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to replace him. Just a few months later, Republicans lost the House and Boehner became minority leader-a position he has held ever since.

With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress over the last two years, Boehner developed a hands-off strategy that Hoekstra summed up as, "[Obama] will go off the cliff by himself." Not a single Republican member voted for the stimulus bill or the healthcare overhaul, and the party voted "no" almost unanimously on the president's other major initiatives like cap-and-trade and financial regulatory reform. In a silent, personal "no" vote, Boehner smokes in his office even though Speaker Nancy Pelosi instituted a ban on smoking in the Capitol.

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