A Kinder, Gentler Speaker?

This predilection led to last week's four-year extension of sensitive and at times politically divisive government intelligence-gathering powers under the PATRIOT Act. Reid called Boehner during the House recess while the speaker was in California raising money for fellow Republicans; Reid proposed a three-and-a-half year extension of post-9/11 surveillance powers. Boehner pushed for four years and promised that he would quiet restive conservatives who wanted to make the surveillance provisions permanent.

That deal held despite a minor uprising by Rand Paul of Kentucky and several other Senate Republicans. With the backing of House Republicans, the PATRIOT Act extension had legislative throw weight. Rand's demand for votes on amendments to restrict government access to certain firearm and business records held up passage and forced some uncomfortable policy contortions but, in the end, amounted to little more than a procedural hiccup. At no time did Boehner or Reid square off and challenge each other's commitment to national security, as had happened in earlier debates on the issue. The deal got done--again within hours of the law expiring--but done, just the same.

Before becoming speaker, Boehner told NJ that he would give committee chairmen more power, allow rank-and-file members of both parties to offer amendments, and encourage bottom-up legislating through the process of "regular order." Six months into his speakership, he has made significant moves in these directions, restructuring not only House operations but also the way lobbyists approach issues, coalition building, and paths to power.

"The diffusion of power is on both sides of the aisle," Jones, the former Clyburn aide now with the Podesta Group, said. "K Street has noticed and is changing. The vote structure is so much up in the air now."

One measure of House openness is the growing number of floor amendments and subsequent roll-call votes--the most vivid expression of partisan and policy preferences. So far in this Congress, the House has considered and voted on 437 amendments; six bills have come to the floor with modified open rules allowing for wide, though not unlimited, debate. In the entire 111th Congress, the Democratic-controlled House allowed one bill to be debated under a modified open rule and considered 810 amendments.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has promised that the House will debate each spending bill under an open rule, meaning no limits on amendments.

House Democrats grudgingly admit that Boehner's approach has led to more amendments, and longer and more-varied floor debate, but they dispute that the process is as open as Republicans say.

"The question isn't just the quantity of the amendments; it's the quality," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a senior member of the Rules Committee. "Most of what Republicans have been doing is messaging. The bills are written to protect their agenda, so amendments that would get at their priorities are ruled out of order or non-germane. Things are not as open as they say they are, and they're not as fair as they say they are."

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, flatly rejected the continuing-resolution debate and its dozens of amendments and late-night sessions as meaningless. "That was like a Potemkin village," he charged.

"I'm not sure I understand the criticism," Steel said. "It's arguing that we're not bipartisan and open because Democrats didn't get their way. Open process doesn't mean Republicans are going to vote for Democratic ideas."

On that, McGovern does not disagree. "That's their prerogative. They won. And it doesn't do any good to complain, because nobody is going to listen."

By all accounts, Boehner's handling of Ryan's budget, the CR, the F-35 second engine, and the PATRIOT Act has strengthened his speakership. But the debt-ceiling negotiations bring big challenges. Ironically, it was a legislative loss that has Boehner well situated to deal with the tests ahead. Every House Republican knows that Boehner could have played the prerogatives game and forced the second F-35 engine into law. That he didn't, Republicans say, has given the speaker more flexibility and latitude. He will need all of both that he can get, because the issues and the negotiations will only get tougher.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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