Majority leader jokes his way through first pen-and-pad

Strolling into the conference room for his first weekly briefing as majority leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) joked, “If this goes well, maybe we’ll do it again.”

The remark elicited laughs from the standing-room-only crowd of reporters and producers who crowded into the first-floor Capitol conference room.

The pen-and-pad sessions can be a powerful tool or potential disaster for leaders as they try to spread the party message on a number of topics coursing through the Capitol.

Terry Holt, who ran the press operation for former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), often jokes that the briefings are like watching a child play with a loaded gun for all the things that can go wrong. Staff members try to prepare the leaders for every eventuality.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden started compiling a list of prospective questions Thursday. Madden, who ran the press shop under then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), based his list on the 30 to 40 questions he receives from reporters each day.

Madden, with the help of Boehner’s skeleton policy staff, then wrote answers and put the Q-and-A together in an eight-page document that he sent the majority leader Monday night. Madden then did a quick review with Boehner 15 minutes before the briefing began.

DeLay, an outspoken conservative, had a more confrontational relationship with the media during his time as leader. Boehner has been a favorite with the Beltway press for years, regularly holding court from his perch among fellow smokers in the southwest corner of the Speaker’s Lobby.

“Mr. Boehner believes the media have a job to do,” Madden said. “He has a very sophisticated sense of engagement about the media and what they have a right to know.”

Boehner, who did without his suit coat and wore a starched white shirt and gold tie, used humor to disarm reporters throughout yesterday’s half-hour question-and-answer session.

“Nice haircut,” he joked before one reporter could ask him a question about his relationship with the Speaker, prompting more laughter from the press. Boehner followed up his own punch line, joking, “That’s the worst haircut I’ve ever seen you get.”

The reporter still had a chance to ask his question, but most of the tension had escaped from the room.

Boehner also used humor to evade tough questions after they were asked.

Asked how he would react if Republican members remained upset with the Dubai Ports World deal after a 45-day congressional investigation, Boehner said, “If ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

Pressed by a producer from CBS, Boehner was no more forthcoming.

The briefings are an unrivaled forum for leaders to force their own priorities on pending legislation. Boehner was reserved on this subject yesterday but did suggest that earmark reform should be attached to any lobbying-reform package passed by the House, and he objected to the provision in the House version of a border-enforcement bill that would allow employers to conduct background checks on all employees.

Like every student standing for an oral exam, leaders appreciate the occasional softball, even if the question might not be easy to answer.

Boehner’s eyes lit up when a reporter asked about the pension bill, his area of expertise as the former chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. He would not reveal his hand on the contentious issue of an airline bailout but criticized Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for slowing the legislation in the upper chamber and joked that he would like to be included in a conference with the Senate “… if the Speaker names me.”

Despite his preparations, there were, inevitably, surprises.

Asked about Microsoft and Yahoo releasing search information to the Chinese government, Boehner could only say that hearings were conducted on the issue.

The last question was about Iraq, an issue Madden had not anticipated. A reporter for The Hill asked the majority leader if he was surprised that he had not yet received a question about the war.

“I’m here to answer questions, not to prepare the questions,” Boehner said before launching into a defense of the war effort.

The veteran Ohio lawmaker, who served as conference chairman between 1994 and 1998, was cautious when asked if he enjoyed his new role and said he was still a bit awed by some of his new responsibilities.

“Well, life has not changed a lot,” he said. “There are still only seven days in a week and still only 24 hours in a day. But the days and weeks are filled up a little different than what they were.”

He would not admit to enjoying himself, saying, “It’s a very big responsibility.”

Madden broke with tradition yesterday by allowing two photographers to shoot the event. DeLay allowed one television camera into the room when he announced he would step aside following his indictment by a Texas grand jury, but cameras are usually barred from the briefings.

Madden’s two standing rules are that the meetings will start promptly, with stragglers being locked out of the room, and only one member from each news organization will be allowed in the briefing (although this paper broke that rule yesterday). Madden said he would resume a precedent he set while still in DeLay’s office by releasing a transcript of each briefing.

“Mr. Boehner does feel like we have a good story to tell on all the important issues we’re working on,” Madden said. “This was the starting point for that process for the beginning of each week.”

After the meeting, Madden felt predictable relief and was already receiving the follow-up phone calls that would dominate his afternoon.

“I feel like I just dropped two 40-pound sandbags from each shoulder,” he said in his office afterward.