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Boehner: a dealmaker and a survivor in tight spot

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 15, 2012 at 10:02 am •  Published: December 15, 2012

A favorite maxim that Boehner likes to recite helps to capture the speaker's approach, and his challenge: "A leader without followers is just a man out for a walk."

Boehner, who lives in a basement apartment in Washington while his wife stays in Ohio, is putting in longer hours these days but still keeps largely to his usual routine. He's up early to check news sites and perhaps get in a walk before breakfast at a diner, then on to Capitol Hill by 9 a.m. He's typically in bed by 10 p.m.

He doesn't hang out in the lobby off the House floor, smoking and kibitzing as he did before becoming speaker.

"The quality of life is not like it was before he was speaker," says Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, a longtime friend of the speaker. "He doesn't play golf as much. He travels and helps members. I wouldn't say it's a very fun job."

Boehner still shows flashes of his dry humor, though.

He drew laughs for dishing off a rhyming dodge to reporters Thursday when asked if he would allow separate votes on middle-income tax rates and rates for the wealthy

"Ifs, ands and buts are like candy and nuts," he said. "If that's the case, every day would be Christmas."

Presiding over the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, Boehner took time to fuss over the optics of his photo op with a Colorado high school student invited to turn on the lights.

"Now here, button your coat, button your coat, c'mon," he gently admonished Ryan Shuster of Colorado Springs. "Ryan, pictures last forever, OK?"

The speaker, who ran a plastics and packaging business before his life in politics, is known for his down-to-earth descriptions of the dynamics on Capitol Hill.

Speaking about the difficulties of leading his diverse caucus, he once explained: "It's hard to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed," referring to the number of votes needed to approve legislation.

Differing with Democrats over tax legislation, he let loose with this one in 2010: "I'm trying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver going on today as chicken crap, all right?"

Boehner, pronounced BAY-nur, took a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again route to the top in the House.

Elected to Congress in 1990, he cut his teeth as part of the freshman "Gang of Seven," Republican upstarts who challenged the status quo. He got his first leadership job in 1995, got pushed out following GOP election defeats in 1998, and staged a comeback eight years later, after Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was indicted for political money laundering.

In his eight years between leadership jobs, Boehner hunkered down and proved himself to be an effective committee chairman and a pragmatic conservative who could work well with Democrats, pivotal to passage of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill.

"I feel like the dog who caught the car," Boehner said when he returned to GOP leadership.

He caught it again two years ago, when Republicans reclaimed control of the House in 2010, then elected him speaker.

Boehner's frequent travel and work on behalf of fellow House Republicans in the run-up to the 2012 elections are one reason that losses in the House were minimized and loyalty to the speaker maximized. He raised more than $97 million for Republicans running for Congress, traveling almost nonstop for the last 45 days leading up to elections.

"From the perspective of the House members, they feel like they've gone through a pretty rough battle and they've survived, and that gives Boehner a lot more credibility," says John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide.

Boehner, typically seen more as sheep-herder than arm-twister, has used that credibility to flex more muscle.

His leadership team this month ousted four outspoken legislators from sought-after committee assignments. The unexpected move prompted cries from the far right of a conservative purge meant to silence the speaker's critics, a notion that Boehner's office rejected.

"You're beginning to see visible manifestations of his increased position of strength inside the conference," says Peters. "The far right of his party doesn't have as much leverage on him as it had before."

They're far from quiet, though.

At a recent "Conversations with Conservatives" event on Capitol Hill, legislators alternated between expressing sympathy for Boehner's tough job and accusing him of botching it.

"I appreciate the speaker, and he's in a tough position — but look, who caused his position?" asked Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana.

"If there's any blame to be placed, it's squarely on his shoulders."

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, still seething over losing a plum committee seat, said if Boehner wants to visit his district, "he's not going to be met with very much welcome."

"I spent a lot of time saying stuff about, 'Speaker Boehner's doing the best job he can do.' I did that for a year, a year and a half," Amash said. "We're not doing the best job we can do. ... We can do a lot better."

The conservative griping and uncertainty about the debt talks have raised speculation that Boehner could face a challenge in January's leadership elections. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Boehner may be trying to string along the debt talks until after the Jan. 3 vote.

Boehner insists he's not worried about his position, but rather about "doing the right thing for my kids and grandkids."

The big question is whether Boehner's caucus will back him if he and Obama craft a "grand bargain" to reduce the federal deficit that includes more new revenues than many Republicans can stomach.

"I just think he needs to negotiate the best deal possible that actually comports with our principles," says Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "There are some deals that will be bad for all of us, and there are some deals that maybe I can't support but they're the best deals that he can get."

Boehner's supporters think that if it comes down to a choice between his job and a deal that puts the country on a better economic path, the speaker would choose the latter.

"I don't think he's here to do small things," says Feehery. "One thing that you understand when you have the speaker's job is that you're not going to hold this forever."


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