Cover Story

Meet the new speaker

"Meet the new speaker" Continued...

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

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."

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