Top 10 challenges John Boehner will face as Speaker of the House

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the toast of conservatives across the country, but he will soon have to confront some difficult decisions that will go a long way in defining his Speakership.

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Boehner has said he has learned from prior Speakers from both sides of the aisle, and has vowed to run the House in a much more open manner than his predecessors. Keeping that promise will be difficult, though that is only one of many challenges the Ohio Republican will face over the next couple of months.

Here are the top 10 challenges the soon-to-be-Speaker will confront.

1. Earmarks.

After House Democrats banned for-profit earmarks in March, Boehner quickly trumped them by banning all earmarks. House GOP appropriators were not consulted, but they bit their tongues, not wanting to undercut their minority leader. Boehner, who has never requested earmarks, wants to continue the crackdown, though that will not be easy in the majority. Over the last few years, House Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to come up with a conference-wide earmark reform plan. Those talks could start again soon. Another complication for Boehner is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has strongly defended the use of earmarks.



2. Committee chairmen.

Boehner, a former panel chairman, has vowed to give his committee chiefs more power. That approach is dramatically different than that taken by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif,), who wrote many bills from her office. Pelosi's power structure kept her old bulls in check, and allowed her to avoid some intra-party battles. Boehner’s incoming committee chairmen, ranging from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to Lamar Smith (R-Texas), speak their minds. Giving his chairmen more authority could foster bipartisanship in a notoriously partisan chamber of Congress — or it could completely backfire. Boehner also must decide if he wants Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) to take over the Financial Services Committee. Soon after the 2008 elections, Boehner moved to oust him as ranking member, but Bachus survived.

3. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

Boehner is probably going to kill the OCE, which was established under Pelosi’s reign. The OCE has been attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike as overreaching, but eradicating it will likely lead to headlines such as “Boehner scraps ethics office.” That won’t look good, especially coupled with criticism from government watchdog groups. Boehner’s argument will likely be that the House ethics committee can handle the job of policing members.

4. Taking on the White House every day.

Though Boehner is well respected and liked by his GOP colleagues, like other leaders, he has made gaffes. In early 2009, Boehner’s release of a thin budget blueprint was a public relations nightmare. And Boehner’s comment before the election that he would vote for President Obama’s tax plan if he had no other option made many on the right cringe. The influential conservative-leaning National Review labeled it a “fumble” as Democrats played it up for several days.

In the minority, those stories fade. In the majority, they don’t. Boehner did well in going toe-to-toe with Obama this fall on the campaign trail. Next year, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are sure to team up against Boehner and his policy ideas. Boehner’s communication skills will be tested on a daily basis in the new Congress.

5. Tea Party lawmakers.

Boehner and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) did a masterful job of unifying their conference in 2009 and 2010, convincing every member to reject the stimulus and healthcare bills. Unity is going to be much tougher to attain in the majority. Many of the Tea Party Republicans coming to Washington don’t want to compromise with Obama on much of anything. At first, Boehner will focus on three things that all GOP members can get behind: cutting taxes, repealing the healthcare reform law and cutting government spending. 



6. The economy.

Boehner this summer called on Obama to fire his economic team. Starting in January, Boehner and his GOP colleagues in the House will assume some ownership of the economy. Voters in the last three elections have been angry, leading to two Democratic waves and a GOP wave on Tuesday. To protect his majority, Boehner will need to convince voters that the Republican House is taking steps to fix the nation’s ailing economy. 



7. Leading, without looking over his shoulder.

Boehner and Cantor are not personally close, but they have worked well together in the minority. Cantor, Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) attracted a lot of attention with their new “Young Guns” book earlier this year, which proclaimed that they represent a “new generation of conservative leaders.” Each of the “Young Guns” are at least 14 years younger than Boehner and all will be in powerful posts. Ryan is expected to be Budget Committee chairman and McCarthy is an early favorite to be majority whip, the No. 3 slot in the House GOP hierarchy. Boehner and his deputies will be on the same page early next year, but the test will come when controversies strike later in the 112th Congress.

8. Moving bills with high price tags.

After vowing to cut the deficit, House Republican leaders will be faced with a tough vote early next year on raising the nation’s debt limit. In February, every House GOP member voted against raising the debt limit and the measure squeaked by, 217-212. Now, the tables will be turned. Republicans will surely blame Democrats for having to do it, but the onus is on them to pass it. Other so-called must-pass bills include the alternative minimum tax and Medicare physician payment bills, which cost billions of dollars. Both may be handled in the lame-duck session, but could be punted until 2011 when Boehner will be holding the gavel.

9. Managing expectations on healthcare.

Boehner must move a healthcare repeal through the House while also managing expectations. Some voters will not be pleased if the healthcare law still exists in two years, though a total repeal is not happening with a divided Senate and Obama in the White House. Getting a healthcare repeal through the lower chamber will be the easy part, because all Republicans and some Democrats will back it. Managing expectations will be much harder.



10. Presidential politics.

Boehner is the face of the Republican Party — for now. The Ohio Republican is all over the cable news shows and magazine covers, but once the presidential primary heats up, the media spotlight will turn to the White House hopefuls. It is likely that at least a few of them will run against Congress, an institution that is always unpopular. And if there is any daylight between Boehner and the Republican nominee, the press will pounce. In 1999, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush ripped congressional Republicans for their plan to save money by slowing the payment of the earned income tax credit. At the time, Bush called it an attempt to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” The GOP initiative was ultimately scrapped.