Move over, McConnell: Boehner poised to drive the Republican agenda

Move over, McConnell: Boehner poised to drive the Republican agenda

A Republican takeover of the House will reorder the relationship between the top-ranking GOP leaders in Washington, Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerStripping opportunity from DC's children Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Biden sister has book deal, set to publish in April MORE (Ohio) and Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellS.E. Cupp: 'The politicization of science and health safety has inarguably cost lives' Poll: Potential Sununu-Hassan matchup in N.H. a dead heat  Business groups urge lawmakers to stick with bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (Ky.), Republican insiders say.

For the past two years, McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has been the most powerful elected Republican in the federal government. Since January of 2009, he has often held the Senate Republican Conference together as the last line of defense against President Obama’s agenda.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerStripping opportunity from DC's children Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Biden sister has book deal, set to publish in April MORE, the House GOP leader, has played a less tactical role — but that is about to change.

Polls suggest Republicans are on track to pick up 45 to 55 seats in the House on Election Day, paving the way for Boehner to become Speaker and set the chamber’s agenda.

Like McConnell, Boehner has kept his conference unified against Democrats, but with less impact, since House rules give the controlling party broad power to limit debate and pass legislation with simple majority votes.

But if the GOP controls the House after the election, the power dynamic in Congress will change. As Speaker, Boehner would be able to put Senate Democrats on the defensive by sending them legislation to extend tax cuts and trim spending.

Senate Democrats, at least 20 of whom face reelection in 2012, will be forced to take tough votes on bills that did not have a chance of passing in the 111th Congress, making Boehner the quarterback of the GOP offense.

“I do believe that John Boehner will be the highest elected Republican official in the land and will be the spokesman of the Republican Party,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. “He will be the most important Republican elected official in Washington, D.C.”

Even if Republican Senate candidates pull off upsets in Washington state, California and West Virginia to capture control of the upper chamber, the House will still form the GOP’s power base.

“Even if Republicans have 51 votes, Democrats can filibuster in the Senate and cannot filibuster in the House,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The House is a more powerful vehicle when you establish discipline.”

Norquist said Boehner and McConnell will work together to put pressure on Obama and Senate Democrats in the next Congress. Boehner will usher bills to extend tax relief and cut spending through the House, and McConnell will force Democrats to vote on them in the Senate.

Boehner and McConnell have worked closely together during the past two years. They hold weekly meetings and speak on the phone frequently when Congress is in session, and their staffs coordinate daily.

Before the White House healthcare summit earlier this year, the leaders convened members from both chambers to plot their strategy, dividing issues among lawmakers to better highlight Republican concerns in the televised debate with the president.

The Boehner-McConnell relationship will be tested, however, on the question of earmarks. Boehner has never accepted earmarks for his district and earlier this year imposed an earmark moratorium on the entire House GOP conference. McConnell, on the other hand, is a member of the Appropriations Committee and won reelection in 2008 by touting federal projects he helped fund in Kentucky. He has resisted efforts to adopt an earmark moratorium within the Senate GOP conference.

The question of earmarks will come up soon after the election. The two leaders must decide whether they will stand together to oppose earmarks that Democrats plan to include in the annual appropriations bills.

Bicameral relationships become more difficult under the burden of controlling one or both chambers of Congress.

Senate and House Republicans had a prickly relationship at times under Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) under the administration of President George W. Bush. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had a notoriously frosty relationship in the mid-’90s.

GOP aides, however, say those past relationships were complicated because of Dole’s and Frist’s presidential ambitions. They say neither Boehner nor McConnell has designs on the Oval Office.

Republicans close to Boehner and McConnell predict their relationship will play out differently in the 112th Congress.

“If you know John Boehner, you know that what you see is what you get,” said a Republican strategist close to Boehner. “He’s not an ego that will run wild just because he’s Speaker of the House, that’s not in John’s nature. You’re not going to see him saying [to McConnell], ‘I’m the senior partner and you’re the junior partner.’ ”

GOP aides predict the level of cooperation between Boehner and McConnell will increase.

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, said: “Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell have an incredibly close and effective working relationship. They share a commitment to making our federal government smaller and more accountable — and advancing that goal is always their top priority."

Some conservative policy advocates say the House is viewed as more aligned with the populist conservative sentiment associated with the Tea Party.

McConnell is known for his humility and reserved style, a demeanor well-suited to backroom negotiations. Reporters often grumble that he eschews the press, unlike Boehner, who has a knack for developing personal relationships with members of the media.

McConnell grabbed the media spotlight this week by giving an extensive interview with National Journal. He made headlines by declaring: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

The statement, which would seem run-of-the-mill from most Republican leaders, startled longtime observers of McConnell.

“I was startled that he would be so bald about his intentions,” said Al Cross, a Kentucky political columnist. “He’s not a completely political animal. He believes in using the system to accomplish some things.”

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said it’s natural that the leader wants to see a Republican in the White House in 2013. He said the response to his comment has been overblown.

“Ending the Obama administration's liberal agenda as soon as possible is Sen. McConnell’s top political priority,” Stewart said. “The American people are clamoring for a focus on jobs and righting our economy. Instead, for two years, the president and the majority in Congress have veered off to the far left and pursued their own liberal wish-list agenda.”

But some conservative observers think that McConnell is feeling pressure from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tea Party voters to adopt a more muscular stance.

“Sen. McConnell is showing early on that he’s willing to be responsive to the Tea Party movement,” Darling said. “Clearly the Tea Party movement will bring the GOP as a whole and the GOP caucus further to the right. Here’s the first sign that the leadership is going to be responsive to those concerns.”

Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, said McConnell’s tough line on Obama was “nice to hear.”

“McConnell needs to stop listening to his leadership aides and more to the Tea Party movement and senators like DeMint and the crop of freshmen that will be coming in the next year,” Roth said.

A few of the conservative Senate candidates, such as Ken Buck in Colorado and Joe Miller in Alaska, have declined to commit to voting for McConnell for Republican leader.

McConnell, however, says he has already locked up the votes to continue as Senate GOP leader and DeMint has pledged to support him.