By Molly K. Hooper and Bob Cusack - 03/19/10 12:13 AM EDT
Eighteen months after he was seen as a “dead man walking” on Capitol Hill, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is discussing how he will run the House if and when he becomes Speaker.
The GOP’s election defeat of November 2008 is not that long ago, but it is an age in Washington politics.
Asked how his term would contrast with former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) tenure, Boehner looked his questioner in the eye and said, “It’ll be different…It’s time to get really serious about fiscal responsibility. Not just talk about it, but deliver.”
He also stresses transparency, vowing to put all bills online 72 hours before they are voted on.
The fact that Boehner is even talking about the possibility of calling the shots in the House is remarkable. As the last election loomed and the Democratic wave could be seen cresting, some on Capitol Hill labeled Boehner “dead man walking.” Boehner was thought to be in his final days as the lower chamber’s top Republican.
While the election was bad for House Republicans, it wasn’t as awful as anticipated. Boehner survived the storm, partly because of his relationships with his GOP colleagues and partly because of his political acumen.
The 60-year-old lawmaker is now focused on the big prize, looking to move into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office in January.
It’s “a steep climb to win 40 seats,” he acknowledged, but added, “I think it’s possible. And that’s the goal…We can do this.”
Democrats say Boehner is in a fantasy world. The reality, they say, is that GOP polling numbers are still way down and that while Republicans are likely to pick up seats, they are not going to regain the majority soon.
Boehner is in the midst of a historic battle over healthcare reform. He says he will do everything he can to thwart the bill, but is not making any predictions.
He says it is “possible” that House Democrats will get enough votes to pass the legislation, but they “do so at their own peril.”
“Most of my colleagues who are running for reelection want to get reelected, and you don’t get reelected when you ignore your constituents and vote with the Speaker or the president.”
Boehner says that as Speaker, he would try to work with President Barack Obama. “It’ll be a challenge,” he said, “The president has a habit of mischaracterizing our words.”
Obama and Boehner are both smokers, but beyond that, they have little in common. Their relationship is known more for banter than for policymaking.
After Obama last year poked fun at the perpetually bronzed Boehner as being a “person of color,” Boehner responded, “You only tease the ones you love.”
Likewise, Boehner said during this week’s annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch on Capitol Hill, that he and the president shared a playful moment.
During a speech that focused on cooperation, Boehner said a laughing Obama pointed at him.
“I was laughing and pointing back at him,” Boehner told The Hill. “I get along with the president fine.”
In recent months, there has been speculation that Republicans are working on another “Contract with America.”
Boehner said something like that is in the works, noting that Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is heading an “agenda project.”
“This initiative started in the House, but we are interested in Republicans across the country participating in it,” said Boehner.
Asked if Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is involved, Boehner responded, “No.” Boehner said he talks to Steele “every month or two.”
“When our agenda project comes out, you will have a very clear view of where we are going,” he said.
Like the Contract with America nearly 16 years ago, the agenda script is unlikely to emerge before Labor Day.
Boehner’s agenda project is likely to tackle earmarks, which he calls “a symbol of broken Washington.”
Boehner’s counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), has not been shy in boasting about earmarks he has brought to his home state of Kentucky. Boehner downplays their differences on the issue, saying he doesn’t tell McConnell what to do, and vice versa.
Boehner has a laid-back style. Critics say he is too easy-going to be an effective Speaker.
But in recent months, he has taken the lead helping to oust Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) as Ways and Means Committee chairman, highlighting the ethics scandal of ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and convincing colleagues to embrace an earmark moratorium.
He is especially proud of the earmark decision, saying, “It took me four years to do it, but it was the right thing to do.”
Boehner mocked Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey’s (D-Wis.) recent decision to suspend earmarks for private companies, calling it a “permanent phony ban.”
Obey has said his panel’s moratorium will last beyond this year, but Boehner noted that the rules of this Congress end in January, and he believes Obey’s moratorium will expire then, too.
By January, Boehner said, the House GOP conference will develop a more open and transparent way of dealing with earmarks.
The earmark move, which was unpopular with some Republicans, shows how Boehner would govern as Speaker, colleagues say.
“Being a leader is just like being any other member,” the Ohio legislator said. “You have to listen to your constituents. There are times to listen and times to lead. And we’ve done a lot of listening with regards to earmarks and at some point, there’s got to be a time to lead.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said, “To me, [Speaker] is the perfect role for John Boehner because he can be the conservative that he is…He has that gift to bring people together on very difficult issues.”
Boehner said he would run the House like he ran the Education and Workforce Committee, where he said the rule was: “You can disagree, but you can’t be disagreeable.”
Few have seen Boehner visibly angry during his 10 terms in the House.
“I don’t yell,” Boehner said. “I don’t do anger. I’m not dictatorial. I’m not a screamer. I know where I want to go and try to build consensus and support to achieve the goals we set.”