A Politician's Politician

A day before becoming the 61st speaker of the House (and the 15th Republican to hold the gavel), John Boehner strode into the speaker's main conference room to convene the first formal House GOP leadership meeting of the 112th Congress.

Unlike his colleagues, Boehner entered without his suit jacket; his heavily starched white shirt shone crisp in the sunlight scattering the shadows in the room. As lawmakers huddled around the rectangular table, a swarm of aides shouldered for space on the crowded perimeter.

"Welcome to the majority," the Ohio Republican beamed.

After the applause died down, Boehner told his leadership team to "be careful" and "pay attention" to the staff members stuffed into the room. With a hard glare, Boehner said that in the future he wanted to economize the staff presence. Before formally seeking a 5 percent reduction in all congressional staff budgets, he wanted a deeper cut among the hangers-on present when his team met to plot and execute its strategy.

If it sounds awfully fastidious and controlling from a man stuck in the opposition for the past four years--a man who might be expected to exult in his victory, throwing caution to the wind--it should. Boehner has planned this moment for years, and he is not going to blow his speakership on cathartic but pointless expressions of ideology (even if that is what some of the bomb-throwing freshmen have in mind).

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He wants to get laws passed, and he knows that doing so is a precarious business. If they will jeopardize his chance at repealing health care or cutting taxes, he won't tolerate frivolous investigations that alienate voters just for the sake of humiliating Democrats. And he won't overstate his case.

Boehner is a politician's politician. He is constantly taking the temperature of his members, balancing their interests against each other, checking the polls, and coordinating a unified message. He is already having to make adjustments--to find ways to balance expectations and performance, promises and deliveries. It is a glimpse of the leadership to come.

For Capitol archaeologists, Boehner convened his lieutenants in the room where former Speaker Newt Gingrich kept a bust of a Tyrannosaurus rex under glass--a toothy testament to his love of paleontology that he got on loan from the Smithsonian. As one top Boehner hand noted dryly, the new speaker is "not known as a fossil collector."

More to the point, Boehner doesn't want to become a fossil--not again. He was once a relic of the Gingrich revolution, a banished 1997 coup plotter against the speaker (it failed) who licked his wounds and steadily, quietly set his sights and ample strategic energy on one overarching goal--becoming speaker himself.

Jack Howard, a GOP lobbyist who worked as a counselor to Gingrich when he fended off the coup, holds no grudge against Boehner. In fact, he marvels at the newly minted speaker's ascent to power, fueled by his ability to move legislation (No Child Left Behind, pension reform, Glass-Steagall repeal, among other examples), and a knack for understanding how to maneuver around virtually any political obstacle.

"Boehner's like a guy who enters a revolving door behind you and comes out ahead," Howard said.

Boehner is now ahead as never before, and he has already imposed a level of discipline on himself and his leadership team that contrasts starkly with Gingrich's brash, bravado-driven approach to power. Gingrich guaranteed a revolution and even before becoming speaker found himself the subject of angry criticism for a $4 million two-book contract (was he trading on a constitutional office just won?) and for saying that poor, teenage mothers might lose their children to orphanages (prompting an "Uncle Scrooge" Time magazine cover).

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Nobody wants Boehner to write a book; and welfare reform--the proximate cause of Gingrich's musings about orphanages--is done. But in contrast to Gingrich's talkative approach, Boehner and his top deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and top vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, have been almost invisible and silent. As GOP Hill wags note, it's not the first time that Cantor and McCarthy have acted strategically: It's just the first time the strategy has included silence.

"That's the difference between having been out of power for 40 years and being out of power for four years," said Bob Walker, chairman of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker, and Gingrich's best friend in the House. "There's a higher degree of caution now."

In significant ways, this approach reflects the rise of the managers. Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy all served in state legislatures before they came to Congress. Gingrich and then-

Majority Leader Dick Armey were former college professors and conservative ideologues bent on tearing out the New Deal and the Great Society root and branch.

For Boehner, much came quickly. He was elected in 1990 and was part of Gingrich's inner circle by 1993. Cantor and McCarthy have also risen with amazing speed--Cantor was elected in 2000, McCarthy in 2006. The three share a corporate, management mind-set. (At the first leadership meeting, Boehner's staff prepared a line-by-line agenda that the speaker-to-be followed to the letter before dismissing the meeting at the appointed time--3:30 p.m.) They have tried to keep expectations modest, operating on the under-promise, over-deliver philosophy of the service industry (McCarthy once owned a deli-cum-batting cage). Holding control of only one chamber of Congress, they know that there are limits on what they can deliver and that too-empty boasts will incur voters' wrath.

"I look at the arrival of this new session with a great dose of seriousness," Cantor told National Journal in an exclusive interview moments before Boehner was sworn in. "We have significant problems. People are not feeling very secure about their future. The matters at hand really require some very hard work and attention. We are really focused on trying to lead, to deliver results. If there was any mandate from this election, it was that this agenda put in place the last two years has not been acceptable to the American people. It has not delivered the results, and we've got to make sure that business as usual in Washington stops."

But as careful as the House GOP leadership team has been, it has not succeeded in corralling its freshmen, or even some more-experienced lawmakers, on key issues such as oversight and the looming vote--sometime in March--to increase the nation's debt ceiling to prevent a government default. The chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, branded President Obama's administration one of the most "corrupt in modern times." Issa later explained he didn't mean to imply illegality, merely policy failures, overspending, and overregulation.

Still, Issa's performance carried a whiff of a ready-shoot-aim approach to oversight that Boehner desperately wants the new House majority to avoid. In fact, he is looking to create a position in the speaker's office for an oversight overseer, a majordomo to ride herd over numerous committees and keep lines of communication open with the executive branch. The central goal, sources say, is to make sure that hearings are conducted in an orderly and politically manageable way (meaning, no inflated allegations, no duplicative topics, no from-here-to-eternity subpoenas).

On the debt-limit vote, Boehner and his team watched with dismay as Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania said they might not support raising the ceiling. Skepticism runs deep in the Republican Caucus about the economic imperative to raise the ceiling above its current $14.3 trillion limit, and Cantor said that the GOP leadership will use a series of votes, including the health care repeal maneuver next week, to build support for the debt vote. The theory is this: If freshman Republicans, full of the animal spirits of the midterm elections, can take a whack at health care and get several spending-cut votes under their belt by the time the debt vote rolls around, they might be in a more malleable mood.

"We are going to be about cutting spending, and we're going to have several months prior to any vote having to deal with the debt limit," Cantor said. "We've committed to bring a bill to the floor every week that cuts spending, and when we get to that debt-limit vote, we're going to see what kind of legislative options are available to us in order to deal with that."

Walker calls the debt vote a "major challenge" for Boehner's team, a moment of potential and peril.

"It will set up as a major place where Republicans can have a huge impact on the administration," Walker said. "This is a point where we can have a serious discussion about where we go on spending."

But only if Boehner and crew can persuade rank-and-file Republicans and the conservative activists in and around the tea party to trade the debt-limit vote for a unified position to cut spending and then leverage the White House to go along. That strategy remains, at best, a work in progress. And the fraying of a GOP pledge to cut $100 billion in nondefense discretionary spending has already muddied the waters.

Republicans now say they won't cut $100 billion--even though that's the promise enshrined in their "Pledge to America." Why? Because the $100 billion figure was the difference between President Obama's 2011 budget (which Democrats never passed) and the 2008 Bush budget, a target that Republicans say they no longer have to meet because spending is now governed by continuing resolution that locks in the 2010 spending levels.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots group closely aligned with the tea party that agitated for lower spending and an end to earmarks even before there was a tea party, called the new GOP standard "lawyerly and nitpicking."

If House Republicans begin to walk away from big spending cuts, dissension could brew immediately, weakening the GOP before the debt vote and diminishing its ability to extract, or even credibly negotiate, a meeting of the minds with the White House on structural budget reforms or agreed-upon spending cuts. A deal with Obama on cuts would give the GOP a real accomplishment, as opposed to ephemeral victories on the House floor that die in the Senate and never make it to the president's desk. But that appears unlikely if the GOP ranks split. There's no cleavage yet, but warning signs are more prevalent than many expected to see this early.

Cantor also wants to use next week's health care vote as a tool to divide House Democrats, who already revealed their dissatisfaction with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi when 19 of their number voted against her sure-to-be-defeated bid for speaker. Cantor considers those Democratic votes potentially gettable on the health care repeal bill. He fully expects the 13 remaining Democrats who voted against the measure in the 111th Congress to side with the GOP in this Congress, giving the effort at least the patina of bipartisanship. When asked if GOP leaders moved so quickly on repealing the health care law to rattle Pelosi and prove that she could not keep her ranks together in their new minority status, Cantor said, "Absolutely."

"This is all that they were about in the last Congress, and she still to this day defends it," Cantor said. "You're going to see some bleeding on their side on this bill--because many of their members understand that this election was about rejecting their agenda, a large part of which was the health care bill. I'm hopeful that will translate into a much better environment for those in the Democratic Caucus to come our way and join us in cutting spending, in shrinking the government, and beginning to get this economy stabilized again."

But the House GOP will ram the bill through the chamber. It will be debated under a closed rule, denying Democrats any chance to offer amendments to preserve key provisions of the law. Republicans decried the use of closed rules during the Democrats' reign in the House but will push through their repeal measure with precisely the same no-holds-barred mechanism.

"We do not believe the straight up-or-down vote on the repeal of Obamacare requires further amendments," said John Murray, Cantor's deputy chief of staff. "The bill and its contents have already been debated and litigated."

Republicans say they will return to open rules and numerous floor amendments after the health care debate. They predict more open rules by the end of next week than in the entire 111th Congress (one would do it, actually).

On health care and spending cuts, the new majority is rapidly encountering open conflicts with its election-season rhetoric and legislative realities. This reality check has opened them up quickly to Democratic criticism and to minor fissures among their members and supporters. Boehner and his team approached their perch of power with little fanfare or chest-thumping certainty. Their caution was grounded in an innate sense of the difficulties ahead--obstacles that they have already had some difficulty navigating.

Tension is ever-present in politics. Leaders try to harness it, direct it, compress it, and release it to maximum advantage. The most skilled legislators do this with a sort of sixth sense. Boehner, many Republicans (and even Democrats who know him well) believe, possesses this skill in ways that Gingrich and his GOP successor Dennis Hastert never did.

Welcome to the majority.

This article appeared in the Saturday, January 8, 2011 edition of National Journal.