Boehner’s transition to House Speaker gets off to a smooth start

Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) transition to Speaker is still in its infancy, but it has gone far smoother than many anticipated.

In the two weeks since the election, Boehner has attracted praise for vowing to fly commercial, advanced his effort to eradicate earmarks and avoided divisive leadership battles.

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As Democrats bickered over who would fill their top-ranking positions, an anticipated showdown between Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) for majority whip never materialized. McCarthy will run unopposed after Boehner urged Sessions to serve another cycle as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). 

Boehner officially stayed out of the race between Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) for the No. 4 position of conference chairman, but his deputies backed the Texan. Bachmann, a leader of the Tea Party movement, realized she didn’t have the votes and endorsed Hensarling. And the storyline of the Tea Party candidate versus the establishment, which had been highlighted on cable news shows, faded away. 

Boehner in many ways was the story of the midterm election, especially with the Senate GOP coming up short in its effort to win back the majority. In one of his first moves as the presumptive Speaker, Boehner announced he would fly commercial when traveling to and from his Ohio district. Boehner’s decision served as a clear contrast to prior Speakers, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who used military planes.

Taxpayer watchdog groups immediately hailed Boehner’s decision, which tapped into voter angst about government waste and countered the White House’s criticism of the Ohio Republican. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs earlier this year said Boehner was “completely out of touch with America.” 

Thomas Edsall, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said Boehner hasn’t stumbled out of the gate: “So far, so good.” 

Edsall said the debate over whether Pelosi should run for minority leader has caused a lot of dissension in the Democratic Caucus. 

“There hasn’t been that sort of dissension in the Republican Party, in part because Boehner has worked with the Tea Party,” he added. 

Boehner has long railed against earmarks. But he has never been closer to ending — or at least substantially curbing — the use of them.

On Friday, Boehner and soon-to-be-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced that the House Republicans will be voting this week to “impose an immediate ban on earmarks at the start of the 112th Congress.”

Boehner’s effort in the House picked up steam when Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who is seeking to become the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, recently came out in support of extending the House GOP’s moratorium on earmarks.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has not been shy in touting the earmarks he has delivered for Kentucky, stunned political observers by agreeing to a GOP conference-wide ban on earmarks.

Boehner and McConnell are now pressing President Obama to convince congressional Democrats to follow suit. 

In his weekly Saturday radio address, Obama said, “I agree with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who’ve recently said that in these challenging days, we can’t afford what are called earmarks.”

Obama has acknowledged he didn’t stand up forcefully to the 111th Congress on earmarks, and GOP leaders say they will hold his feet to the fire. 

In their joint statement on Friday, Boehner and Cantor said, “We welcome President Obama’s remarks on earmark reform, and we call upon him to urge congressional Democrats to hold a vote [this] week on a similar measure. Furthermore, if the president is committed to real earmark reform, he could demonstrate that immediately by agreeing to veto any spending measure this year or next that includes earmarks.”

Boehner has tapped Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) to head the House GOP’s transition, which includes methodically going through the rules and procedures of the lower chamber. 

There are going to be thorny issues to deal with in the weeks and months ahead, including deciding the fate of the Office of Congressional Ethics and whether to cut the salaries of lawmakers amid an ailing economy and a high national unemployment rate.

Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Boehner has gotten off to a good start because “he was acceptable not only to the returning members, but to the new members as well.” 

Still, Baker added, there are sure to be bumps in the road. 

“They’re still in the celebratory phase. … I think that there is bound to be friction” down the road, he said.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, “House Republicans made a pledge to America that included stopping the Democrats’ tax hikes, cutting spending and fixing the way Congress works. We’ve tried to hit the ground running on those priorities — but there’s still a lot of work ahead.”

—Hayleigh Colombo and Kevin Cullum contributed to this article.