A Kinder, Gentler Speaker?

But time still remained. Lawmakers spent the following weekend going over the deal's fine print. It is often at this stage that favored projects sneak back into legislation, typically bearing no fingerprints. Sometime in this process--the principals cannot agree when--Jackson called Krone with a question long expected. "Is the second engine still available?" Jackson wasn't demanding. He wasn't insisting. But one last time, the most tempting perhaps of the entire process, he was exploring what might be possible. Brown and Leahy and other supportive lawmakers had been hovering around the issue. Krone said it was very late in the process and that Reid's office would have to run the request by Obama, Gates, and White House Budget Director Jack Lew. Jackson told Krone to wait for him to call back. When he did, he withdrew the request.

Krone still marvels at Boehner's restraint. "He never sold out his members. The carrot was there. They thought about it. But they never took it."

Rooney said, "We didn't know what he was negotiating in there." The House had approved dozens of policy riders (something Republicans once opposed on spending bills) and any one or all of them could be tossed out at Boehner's direction. "I thought I was going to be taken out with the tide like everything else. A lot of riders--most of the riders--were dropped. The fact that the second engine was one of the ones he kept in the final deal, I just find that very uplifting."

McKeon disagrees with the outcome. His 2012 defense authorization bill seeks to revive the second engine by allowing GE and Rolls-Royce to fund development on their own and retain access to Defense Department facilities and by preventing any destruction of existing tooling and design. "I don't think the issue is over." McKeon knows that it's up to his committee to turn the tide. Boehner clearly won't intervene, and McKeon says that Boehner's instincts served him well.

"The will of the House is the will of the House," McKeon said. "To overcome that vote just because he was the speaker would have damaged his credibility and undermined his leadership."

BOEHNER AND THE BUDGET ABYSS

Obama couldn't deny Boehner time to pray any more than he could force Boehner to produce 218 votes--the second and equally important (though often underappreciated) step in translating a budget deal into legislation. Boehner left the Oval Office on April 7 after making his request. The atmosphere remained tense as he and Reid made their way out of the West Wing. The two had come to know and respect each other during weeks of private negotiations and public fencing over the budget and several near-misses on government shutdowns. Reid sensed that Boehner felt boxed in. Obama had demanded that the speaker call him with his answer by 9 the next morning. As Boehner left the White House, Reid returned to the Oval Office. "I think we need to give him more time, Mr. President."

Krone, Reid's chief of staff, then spoke plainly. "You know he's not going to call, don't you?" Krone said.

"What do you mean, he's not going to call?" Obama said, incredulous. Reid told Obama he could sense that Boehner felt squeezed and would milk the clock before agreeing to a deal.

"He's going to keep his options open as long as he can," Krone told the president.

Reid and Krone's intuition served them and Obama well. Boehner didn't call. Importantly, nobody overreacted. Ultimately, the deal got done late on that Friday, April 8, and each side claimed a hard-fought if unsatisfying victory. Boehner didn't get all the spending cuts he wanted and Obama gave up more than he preferred.

Boehner never wanted a government shutdown, and he had conveyed as much to Reid last December when the speaker ventured across the Capitol to meet with the majority leader in his private office. The venue for that meeting may seem trivial, but Reid considered it a sign of respect and graciousness that Boehner, who had dispatched GOP aides to Nevada to fight Reid's reelection just a month earlier, would venture onto his turf for their first encounter as the Capitol's top power brokers.

"We have to find a way to cooperate," Boehner told Reid. "We have to find a way."

During that December meeting, Boehner turned to his chief of staff, Jackson, and pointed to Reid's new chief of staff, Krone, and said he and Reid would "need you two" to deal with budget and other top-tier negotiations and that the aides would have to operate with candor and trust. And although such talk might strike some freshman Republicans as a preemptive act of surrender, at the same meeting Boehner bluntly declared an end to congressional earmarks, line items of federal spending that senators value highly and were in no mood to jettison. Reid stiffened at Boehner's flat refusal to send any earmarks to the Senate, but he sensed the Ohio Republican's seriousness--and, most important, Boehner's institutional commitment to make things work and find a way to forge deals, not blow them up.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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