That's when Boehner's evolution began. He threw himself into committee work, and by 2001 he was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, just in time for the arrival of a president, George W. Bush, who was committed to education reform. The resulting No Child Left Behind bill was the product of an oddball collective effort hard to imagine today, with Boehner and Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire sitting down and cutting a deal with two liberal Democrats—Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
For better or worse, that measure marked Boehner as a deal-maker—a bit of Washington praise that has turned into an epithet in this hyper-partisan era. But while the political environment has changed, Boehner hasn't, even as he now leads a conference seemingly allergic to compromise.
Until this summer, Republicans who know Boehner well believed there was a strong chance he would leave the House at the end of 2014. He never said so publicly, but the speaker left just enough potential clues—his purchase of a Florida condo, a few blunter-than-usual public comments criticizing some of his GOP members—that retirement looked like a real possibility. Then came June 10 and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning loss in his Republican primary in Virginia. Despite their uneasy relationship, Boehner had viewed Cantor as the only viable candidate to succeed him as speaker.
Aides and lawmakers close to Boehner say that if he thinks current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is ready for the promotion, he may decide to make the 114th Congress his last. If the succession is less clear—and if Republicans capture the White House, giving Boehner a more willing partner—then he might stay longer.
But uncertainty about the heir apparent isn't the only reason for Boehner to stay in Washington. "I think John wants to be a difference-maker," says Thune, a friend from their days together in the House. "He wants his speakership to be a consequential one. He kind of made a decision, probably more recently, to hang around for that reason."
Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide, says the speaker wants desperately to dispel the notion that the House is broken. "Right now, what drives John in his day-to-day dealings within his own conference, with the Senate and the White House, is that he wants to fix this perception the public has that the institution is dysfunctional. He wants it functional again," Madden says. "Whatever he can do, whether it's incremental steps to change that perception or it's one big dramatic step, it's going to be on the table."
Though Boehner has called the collapse of the 2011 talks "the biggest disappointment I've had as speaker," he has also said he believes the negotiating format—two men meeting furtively in the White House, deliberately keeping most details from their respective sides and the public—was a mistake, an undemocratic experiment not to be replicated.
Before long, Washington will revert to campaign politics, leaving little room for policy discussions.
LaTourette laid out Boehner's priorities in this order: "He'd very much like to have the big economic deal—he'd like to have comprehensive tax reform, he'd like to solve this problem about the spiraling debt. This is why he snuck in the back door of the White House in 2011, against the will of a lot of people in the caucus, to try and make that deal."