Boehner faces toughest leadership test

John Boehner’s first year as Speaker has been filled with conflict as the Ohio Republican has battled President Obama, Senate Democrats and members of his House majority.

This week arguably is Boehner’s biggest challenge of 2011, as he tries to persuade fellow GOP lawmakers to back an extension of the payroll-tax holiday. Obama and congressional Democrats have seized the upper hand on the legislation while Republicans argued among themselves over whether it would help the economy.

The payroll-tax standoff is similar to other battles Boehner has waged this year. During the government-shutdown showdown in the spring and the summer’s contentious battle over raising the nation’s debt limit, Boehner sought two things: political leverage and votes.

ADVERTISEMENT
This week will be no different.

The House will vote on a payroll-tax extension containing sweeteners to lure conservative votes, most notably the fast-tracking of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. Democrats say the massive bill, which includes provisions on the so-called Medicare doc fix and unemployment benefits, has no chance of passing the Senate and will not become law.

Boehner’s ultimate goal is to reach a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House, minimize GOP defections and neutralize the payroll-tax holiday as an election issue next year.

One Republican member told The Hill that Boehner has implied privately that Republicans will risk their House majority if they don’t extend the payroll-tax holiday.

“He said, ‘You don’t want to go home and defend a tax increase,’” according to the lawmaker.

Boehner’s first year has had many ups and downs. This summer, he nearly struck a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit with Obama, before the president accused the Speaker of leaving him twice at the altar.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Boehner clashed so much that the Speaker put his arm around his smiling lieutenant at a July news conference in hopes of quashing the drama they created.

Running the GOP conference has been Boehner’s hardest task. The huge freshman class has, at times, dictated the direction of the lower chamber, rejecting orders from Boehner.

Boehner and his leadership team have tried to reason with recalcitrant colleagues, and used strong-arm tactics when that failed. But neither worked, so the Speaker has had to rely on Democratic votes to pass high-profile bills.

The Hill interviewed dozens of Republican members for this article, and there was one word that kept coming up to sum up Boehner’s first year: patience.

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close friend of the Speaker, has been impressed by his temperament.

“His patience, oh my gosh. I could never have that patience,” Tiberi said. “Think about it — all this stuff — he’s got to deal with a president who lacks leadership, he’s got to deal with a Democratic Senate, then he has to try to educate one-third of our conference ... about ... how things work around here.”

Some GOP lawmakers have worried about the toll the job is taking.

The Speaker, a smoker and red wine drinker, told The Hill last week that to relieve stress, he walks a lot.

“I’m not riding my bike as much as I’d like,” Boehner added.

People who know him well say he has had to adapt to the spotlight of Speakership. In contrast to his prior years in leadership, for example, he rarely talks to the media in the halls of Congress.

Pressed on his first year as Speaker, a smiling Boehner told The Hill: “I don’t talk to reporters. You know I’m very disciplined.”

High points of Boehner’s reign so far include striking spending and deficit deals with Obama. He crowed that he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the debt-ceiling negotiations with the president, and many Democrats agreed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Republicans credit Boehner with changing the Washington discussion from spending to cutting. Obama and leading congressional Democrats initially called for a “clean” increase to the debt ceiling, but Boehner scoffed at that and prevented anything like it.

Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.), a former Florida House Speaker, said, “He’s been able to change the culture … We’ve actually made cuts in programs, not just decreasing the increase, actual cuts. Small, but they have been made.”

Boehner’s negotiating power is bolstered by his strong relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). They have very different personalities and styles. But they work well with each other, which is vital as the political press is constantly looking for daylight between them.

According to a source close to Senate GOP leadership, McConnell and Boehner meet once a week and talk regularly on the phone.

“They don’t surprise each other, they don’t get ahead of each other, they don’t screw each other,” the aide said. “No surprises and neither one tries to run the other one’s chamber. That’s why you’ll never see a background quote from a senior Republican Senate aide saying, ‘The Speaker’s screwed something up.’”

Boehner has not avoided stumbles altogether. In 2010 as minority leader, he vowed to revamp the appropriations process radically, but it remains a mess as Congress once again is going to merge spending bills into one “megabus” measure.

The Speaker has made it clear that Republicans wish to reform Obama’s healthcare law, but he has not offered something to replace it.

And despite his vows to change Washington as Speaker, the public is disgusted with Congress, and its handling of the economy, according to polls.

But there is no denying that Boehner has kept the revolutionary class of 2010 at bay. There have been no attempts to overthrow him, and political analysts say the chances of the House GOP retaining its majority in 2013 are good.

Boehner has survived 2011, and that is a feat in itself, Republican lawmakers say.