Democrats expect few changes under Boehner

House Democrats are skeptical that they will fare better under new House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) than they did under the previous House leadership, despite Boehner’s statements during his campaign that he would allow the minority party more involvement.

“We’ve heard a lot of things from the majority. What counts is not what they say but what they do,” said a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Boehner has said several times in recent months that he wants to loosen some of the restrictions that House Republicans have typically placed on their Democratic counterparts, suggesting that he would allow Democrats more votes on substitute amendments and that, under his leadership, the House would not carry out business in “the dead of night.”

“We need to make consideration of bills more open — and always guaranteeing the Democrats the right to offer a substitute amendment … so that voters can size us both up and see which philosophy and which proposal they support,” he said in a Jan. 9 document outlining his agenda.

During a floor debate over the pension bill in December, Boehner sympathized with Democrats who had been denied the opportunity to offer a substitute.

“I have been in the minority. I have been in your position. I have made the arguments that you are making, and I do believe that when we stymie debate in the House we short-circuit our constitutional responsibilities,” he said.

At least one Democrat is taking him at his word.

“I know John Boehner,” said golfing buddy Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I really feel that he will be more open and involve Democrats because the American people knows how undemocratic it is [now].”

But most Democrats interviewed for this article said they would wait and see whether Boehner will make substantive changes to give them more input.

“The real issue here is less about allowing a substitute and more about allowing specific amendments,” a top Democratic aide said. “Does he allow a panoply of amendments as he did in committee? If not, then it’s just window-dressing.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called on Boehner to adopt the Democrats’ procedural reforms.

“For starters, he should allow a vote on the reform amendments offered by Congressman [David] Obey [D-Wis.] to restore democracy and open debate to the floor of the Congress: no dead-of-night legislation, no secret amendments, no bills passed without having been read. Those reforms offer real change, and without them there will just be more of the same arrogance from Washington Republicans,” Miller said last week.

Pelosi told fellow Democrats at their annual retreat over the weekend that she would work in as bipartisan a way “as possible” with Boehner but then joked that they both knew their respective roles as leaders of opposing parties, according to a House Democratic leadership aide present at the retreat.

Pelosi made the comments shortly after having called Boehner on Thursday to congratulate him on his victory.

On the Education and the Workforce Committee, where Boehner has been chairman for the past five years, Democrats said that he was fair but that the two parties often diverged on policy.

“I would call it cordial with a stark difference in philosophy,” said an aide to a Democrat on the panel. “The philosophies are just too different to be bipartisan.”

Others said that while Boehner did not adopt the confrontational tactics of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), known as one of the harshest chairmen, he also failed to consider any items from the Democrats’ agenda.

Interestingly, both of the top staffers to the Education Committee have gone on to become the top aides in their respective leaders’ offices. Paula Nowakowski was named chief of staff in Boehner’s leadership office, while John Lawrence became Pelosi’s chief of staff last year after having worked for Miller. Sources said the two had a good working relationship on the committee.

While House Democrats were pondering whether Boehner’s ascension would cool partisan tensions, their campaign committee wasted little time in attacking Boehner on ethics and suggesting that he was no different from previous leaders

“As The Who famously said: ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in a release. “American families will be no better represented by this new leadership than they were by the old.”