A Kinder, Gentler Speaker?

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Amid the wreckage of the New York loss, it's worth remembering that when 40 Senate Republicans voted for the Ryan budget--a group that stretched from old-guard appropriator Thad Cochran of Mississippi to tea party favorite Mike Lee of Utah and through freshman Ron Kirk of Illinois and moderate Richard Lugar of Indiana--they did so after that election. If those GOP senators saw a cliff, they edged closer to it, not farther away. So did GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who offered a qualified endorsement of Ryan's budget after two days of (to party stalwarts) dissatisfying dodginess. To know that Ryan's handiwork has become something of a litmus test for serious GOP presidential candidates, one only needs to revisit Gingrich's version of Pennsylvania Avenue Apocalypse Now when he had to backtrack from his criticisms of the plan.

FLYING HIGH, FLYING LOW

For those skeptics who think that "regular order" and "letting the House work its will" are bubblegum phrases filled with air and easy to puncture, consider this: Boehner allowed the House to rise up and defeat a project near his Ohio district that he has defended for years. That project, a General Electric and Rolls-Royce program to build a second engine for the F-35 jet fighter, lost every dime of funding when an amendment by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., prevailed during consideration of the continuing resolution. By a 233-198 vote, lawmakers cut $450 million in Pentagon spending, the largest defense cut approved on the floor and one that shocked and disappointed second-engine backers besides Boehner--among them Cantor and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon of California.

The speaker's position on the second engine was clear. A GE Aviation plant just outside Boehner's district in Evendale, Ohio, employs about 1,000 people, and Boehner and others argued that if the F-35 ever needed greater thrust capacity, the GE-Rolls-Royce engine could and should meet the Pentagon's needs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed the second engine (the project began in the mid 1990s with an earmark written by then-Sen. John Warner, R-Va.), arguing that it siphoned funds from more important defense needs. Presidents Bush and Obama opposed the second engine, and each tried to kill it, losing every time to a seemingly unbeatable regional and bipartisan coalition loyal to the engine's makers and the concept of having a backup if the original engine design, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, fell short.

But when the House turned against it, Boehner was nowhere to be found. Aides said that he deliberately avoided the floor vote so as not to tilt the outcome. His absence miffed McKeon. The chairman's staff pleaded with Boehner's aides to join the fight, which McKeon feared he might lose amid budget-cutting gusto.

"There were some who felt he should have weighed in on that," McKeon told NJ, referring to Boehner. "I didn't ask John to weigh in on it. The opponents just did a really good job. And we didn't do a good job."

Rooney remembers the vote as if it was a dream.

"I thought I was going to lose that day; we had lost by 20 votes the year before. When we got to [the needed] 218, I remember thinking, 'Please, God, no one change your vote.' Afterward, someone came up to me and said, 'You just beat the speaker.' I was like, 'Uh-oh.' I'm still sort of shocked to this day that we accomplished that."

But Rooney said he has paid no price with Boehner or any other House GOP leader. "There was no call to the office. Nothing like that. Under any normal political scenario in the past, there is no way we could have been successful. The speaker had a parochial interest. This does signal a change in Washington."

Rooney feared that the change might be short-lived. He knew that Boehner would negotiate the final deal with Obama and Reid on the continuing resolution and could, at any time, tuck funding for the second engine back in the deal. "I did worry about it," Rooney said.

Reid's staff expected Boehner to do just that. In fact, Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patrick Leahy of Vermont lobbied Reid to give Boehner room to revive the engine. At the start of negotiations on the CR, Reid's chief of staff, David Krone, told Boehner's chief of staff, Barry Jackson, that Reid would green-light moving the second engine into the final compromise. Jackson said no. "The speaker does not believe in micromanaging the Defense Department." Boehner wouldn't ask directly for the second engine to be revived, but that doesn't mean he didn't look for indirect ways to keep it alive.

When the CR negotiations began, Boehner suggested beginning with a defense-spending number that included the 2010 authorization levels--which made room for the second F-35 engine. When Obama and Reid objected, Boehner retreated quickly. When the final deal was announced on April 8, a harried Boehner took questions for more than an hour from House Republicans curious about what was in--or not in--the deal before finally retreating in exhaustion to a side room. There, he answered more questions, as if granting audiences to individual members. Rooney approached, and before he could say a word, Boehner waved him off. "Don't worry," the speaker told the two-term upstart who had bested him. "The second engine is not in the deal."

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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