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.
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.
With Democrats derisively calling Republicans the "party of no," Boehner swaggeringly upped that: He made them the party of "hell no." Before the vote on healthcare reform, Boehner gave one of his blunt, blistering floor speeches: "Look at how this bill was written. Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability? Without backroom deals, and struck behind closed doors, hidden from the people? Hell no, you can't! Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager's amendment? Hell no, you haven't!" Just about his only other talking point, besides "hell no," was, "Where are the jobs?" That message has worked politically: Boehner says Pelosi and Obama have driven voters into Republican arms.
Pelosi, going further with a governing strategy Gingrich began, has all but shut out the minority's ability to add amendments to bills-and Democrats haven't kept their promise to post bills two days ahead of a vote. In February 2009, just before the stimulus bill passed, Boehner hoisted the bill and said, "1,100 pages, yet not one member of this body has read it. Not one. What happened to the promise that we're going to let the American people see what's in this bill for 48 hours?" He then dropped the 1,100 pages on the floor, saying, "But no, we don't have time to do that."
Latham said Speaker Boehner will institute a "respect of process." Bills will be written in committee, Latham said, not in the speaker's office. They'll be published in advance so at least members' staff can read the bills before their bosses vote. Boehner has never requested an earmark, and he instituted an unofficial moratorium on them this year within the party. Most House Republicans have adhered to it. But Boehner is friendly with lobbyists, and he says that is part of the job. He says he has maintained ethical boundaries. He rents a basement apartment on the Hill from a lobbyist.
Social conservative groups generally support Boehner. "All of the meetings I was in early in the Congress-we were extremely pleased to hear what the leadership said," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List. She also forecasts the development of "a uniquely pro-life freshman class" that will push Boehner. Dannenfelser interviewed more than 100 GOP candidates and was impressed with their "degree of steel and backbone": "They will be voting as a bloc on ending public funding for abortion."
Social conservatives in the House echoed that prediction. "I'm assuming Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor-they've been solid on life their whole legislative career. I think they get it," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is vocal on social issues: "If they don't fight for those things, there are going to be a lot of members that push them."
The most pushy (on social issues) member of the GOP leadership team, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., is not a close friend of Boehner's-he ran for leader against him in 2006, calling for a return to the "values" of the 1994 Contract with America. But Pence responded to my questions about Boehner with a strong statement defending him: "John Boehner has led from conviction on social issues throughout his time in Congress. . . . Social conservatives will soon realize that John Boehner is the most pro-life speaker since Roe v. Wade."
Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, said reports of conflicts between Boehner and social conservatives are "completely manufactured." Even in one of Boehner's less conservative moments-his championing of No Child Left Behind-it was apparent that social conservatives had the future speaker's ear. During negotiations over the legislation in 2001, Republicans added language specifying that public-school curricula should offer "the full range of scientific views" on controversial topics like evolution. Social conservatives had stressed to Boehner the importance of including such language.
When Republicans introduced this year's Pledge to America at a Virginia lumber company, Boehner insisted that the GOP's commitment to marriage and life issues wasn't anything new: "We're not going to be any different than we've been. We're going to stand up for what we believe in." The pledge includes a commitment to ban federal funding for abortion but lacks other specifics. In the document the GOP does pledge to "honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values."
Overall, social conservatives will be but one part of Boehner's coalition and constituency, and they may not even be the one most difficult to please. Hoekstra said it will be tough for Boehner to manage the expectations of frustrated voters who want a drawdown of government spending and a repeal of the healthcare overhaul-which Boehner may be able to pass in the House, but which may not make it to the Senate floor and would face a certain veto on President Obama's desk. "I'm not worried about him," said Latham. "You can do as much as you can do."
The speech Boehner gave on the House floor in 2007, on the first day of the new Democratic-controlled Congress, may be the best message to himself and his party now. "This is the people's Congress," he said. "Most people don't care which party controls it. What they want is a government that is limited, honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. The moment a majority forgets this lesson, it begins writing itself a ticket to minority status."
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