By Alexander Bolton - 01/23/07 12:00 AM EST
Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) broke his silence last week to implore colleagues in a private meeting to fight what he regards as the unfair procedural tactics Democrats used for their 100-hour agenda.
Lawmakers interpreted Hastert’s surprise remarks as a message to the Republican House leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), to be more aggressive in opposition.
The next day, Boehner surprised Democrats with a fiery denunciation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) 100-hour agenda in its final hours, offering a motion to adjourn. That same day, as the Democrats’ legislative blitz wound down, Republicans unleashed other stalling tactics.
Several Republicans viewed Boehner’s interjections Thursday as a reaction to Hastert’s comments to the caucus the day before. Colleagues viewed Hastert’s words as especially significant because he had told colleagues that his New Year’s resolution was to avoid speaking up during conference meetings as a member of the rank-and-file.
Some colleagues viewed Hastert’s short-lived resolution as a desire to avoid meddling with the new leadership’s authority. The thought also arose that he might be acting on behalf of his patron, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has set up a conservative advocacy group.
“I think the Speaker’s comments were reflective of frustration in the conference about us not getting our points across in the first hundred hours,” said a senior Republican lawmaker, referring to Hastert.
But the lawmaker added that Boehner is taking a long view to devising the House Republicans’ strategy.
“I think the minority leader is of the view that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said the lawmaker.
“It was a wake-up call,” said another Republican, who saw Boehner’s actions on Thursday as driven by Hastert.
But a senior GOP aide said Boehner was reacting more to the Democrats than to the former Speaker.
“I think it was very encouraging for the conference to see that the Speaker was very engaged and energetic,” said the aide of Hastert. “But what galvanized the leadership and the rest of the members was the Democrats’ decision to completely disregard regular order.”
The aide said the final straw for Republicans came last week when House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) denied Republicans the chance to debate rules amendments.
Some Republicans fear that Boehner, known for never raising his voice with colleagues or aides, may be too restrained to lead another Republican revolution.
“Boehner’s demeanor is very gentlemanly, very reserved, and there is discussion about whether or not he’d be aggressive — it’s early in his time as a leader,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), who is emerging as one of the most outspoken Republican critics of Pelosi. “This week he signaled that he knows what he’s doing and [is] willing to step up as a leader.”
During a press conference in which he attacked the 100-hour agenda, McHenry predicted that Boehner and other Republican leaders would soon prove themselves tough.
“You will … see a more aggressive stance from Republicans in the House,” he said, “not simply those junior members like those on this stage, but the leadership on down will be willing to stand up and fight when necessary. What we saw from Leader Boehner this week is saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who joined McHenry on Friday to blast Democrats’ tactics, said Boehner wanted to avoid trampling on Pelosi’s election as the first female Speaker of the House.
“I think he’s very sensitive to the idea that we have the first woman speaker in history and I think he felt that historical moment when he passed that gavel,” said King. “I’ll give deference to that moment in time but beyond that I would deal with her leadership like any other leadership.
“I hope that some of the resistance some of us have put up has been helpful in stiffening the resistance of our leader.”
But King said he would not be satisfied with the leadership’s resolve until they had committed to rank-and-file members to be as aggressive as possible.
“Until I hear from leadership that he endorses and supports an aggressive approach to the causes we’re here to defend, then I won’t think there’s been enough change,” he said.
Other Republicans, such as Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who has teamed up with Democrats in the past on high-profile issues, said that voters expect bipartisanship.
“There will be issues we can’t work on together but on others we can. I think the American people are looking for both parties to work together,” he said. “You cannot go out there and always keep throwing the bomb. It doesn’t always work, especially when you have a president with a 34 percent approval rating.”
Democrats said they noticed a clear change in tone from Boehner on Thursday.
“It came as a surprise,” said a Democratic aide. “On that day the Republicans ramped up more of their slowing tactics with parliamentary inquiries and points of personal privilege. It was a waste of time.”
One GOP aide said that Boehner shares the Young Turks’ desire to challenge Democrats but that he and other leaders are still mulling when would be the best time to wage procedural war.
“If Hastert hadn’t done anything we might have done it anyway,” said a GOP aide of Boehner’s floor speech and motion to adjourn. “But Hastert saying something locked it in that we would do it.”