Boehner: Hard-Edged Partisan or Deal Maker?
Policy + Politics

Boehner: Hard-Edged Partisan or Deal Maker?

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If the polls and political analysts are right about the midterm elections, John Boehner, known for his hard-edged partisan rhetoric, including his promise to roll back health care reform and other Obama administration initiatives, will become speaker of the House. Yet that portrayal contrasts sharply with the John Boehner of the late 1990s, who found common ground with the Democrats on important health care, workforce and education issues.

Rep. John Boehner’s political career hit rock bottom in late 1998, when he was ousted from a House Republican leadership post in the declining days of the Republican Revolution after a major falling out with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Some thought it was over for him back in the Newt Gingrich era,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron.  “It’s the kind of setback that would have made some people a backbencher for the rest of their career. But he managed to rise above it.”

Instead of retreating into political exile, Boehner quickly reinvented himself as a legislative deal maker in the Education and Workforce subcommittee and soon moved up to the chairmanship of the full committee. Within a year’s time he had racked up an impressive legislative record — including passage of employer-run health insurance programs and a bipartisan version of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” educational reforms. 

The chain-smoking, low-key conservative lawmaker from Ohio surprisingly enlisted two key Democratic allies during those difficult negotiations: Rep. George Miller of California and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, two of the most prominent liberals in Congress at the time.

During a recent interview with The Fiscal Times, Boehner said “I’m proud of the work we did on the education reform bill” and suggested that his approach back then is how he would conduct himself as speaker. “Going forward, I will continue to fight for the smaller, more accountable government the American people want,” he said. “To the extent that President Obama and congressional Democrats are willing to work with us toward that goal, I think we can get a lot done.”

Democrats  generally don’t believe Boehner will be willing to work with them next year and have portrayed him as an obstructionist who has consistently tried to thwart President Obama’s economic and domestic agenda. “That was a long time ago,” Miller said recently of Boehner’s bipartisanship on education issues during the Bush administration. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it since then.”

Some political analysts believe that Boehner’s
instincts are to seek common ground with the Democrats.

During a recent speech in Ohio, Obama singled out the would-be speaker, saying that he and the Republican leadership are “asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class.”

Some political analysts believe that Boehner’s instincts are to seek common ground with the Democrats, but that he has had to be cautious to avoid alienating hard-line conservatives in his party. His one recent attempt at bipartisanship — when he said on “Face the Nation” that he might vote with the Democrats to extend tax cuts to the middle class and not the wealthy if that were the only choice — triggered such an angry GOP backlash that Boehner backed away from his comment.

“If he could have the politics he wanted, I think he would like to see a more bipartisan Congress,” said William Cunion, professor of American government and politics at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. “But I don’t think he gets to determine the context in which he will be speaker of the House, if that occurs,” Cunion added. “We are living in extremely partisan times. In that context, there is good reason to think he would not be conciliatory.

The Early Years
So who is the real John Boehner, the deal maker or the partisan hatchet-man? And what would that mean for the House in the likely event he should replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker next year?

Boehner, 60, describes himself as an up-from-the-bootstraps kind of guy, one of 12 children in a working class Catholic family who grew up in a two-bedroom house in Cincinnati. After working his way through Xavier University as a janitor, Boehner went to work for a small Ohio plastics and packaging business and eventually took it over.  He began his political career serving on the Union Township Board of Trustees before winning election to the Ohio House in 1984, at the age of 34. Then in 1990, he won a seat in Congress by challenging and defeating incumbent Republican Donald (Buzz) Lukens in the heavily Republican district. 

In the House, Boehner amassed a conservative voting record, although he   demonstrated an independent streak from the beginning. He joined the “Gang of Seven,” young freshmen Republicans who insisted on naming all 355 members of the House — Republicans and Democrats alike — who had abused their privileges by making frequent overdrafts at the House bank.

By 1997, Boehner and other high ranking Republicans
had lost confidence in Gingrich, a brilliant but erratic
leader, and began secretly plotting to force him out.

In 1994, Boehner teamed up with Gingrich, Tom DeLay of Texas  and other Republican  rebels to draft the 10-point “Contract with America,” a popular campaign document that helped the GOP wrestle control of the House from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years. After the election, Boehner was elected chairman of the Republican Conference, the fourth ranking leadership post in the House. But by 1997, Boehner and other high ranking Republicans had lost confidence in Gingrich, a brilliant but erratic leader, and began secretly plotting to force him out. When the conspiracy was revealed, Boehner took the fall and was unseated as conference chairman by Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma after the 1998 election.

Instead of calling it quits, Boehner parlayed a relatively obscure subcommittee chairmanship into an important legislative perch in early 1999. Within six months, his panel had passed eight bills revamping employer-run health insurance plans.

The next year, as President George W. Bush’s administration was just settling in, Boehner was elevated to chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, as it was called then, and had chief responsibility in the House for shepherding through the new president’s education reform package.

From the start, Bush made it clear that he was taking a hands-off approach to getting the “No Child Left Behind”  bill through Congress, but he also made it clear he wanted a bill. The legislation was premised on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education.  Conservative Republicans fought the proposed testing standards, while Democrats were leery of what they said was insufficient funding for the program. Boehner worked tirelessly to bring the sides together.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., recalls Boehner as a conciliator during that period. Kildee was the highest ranking Democrat on the House Education and Labor subcommittee. “We really had a bipartisan arrangement,” Kildee told The Fiscal Times. “We worked very closely together,” calling Boehner’s dealings absolutely fair.

Then, after the House-and Senate-passed versions of the bill reached a conference committee, Boehner sat down with Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee. According to some those in the room, Boehner often brought the group back together with humor or persistence when others had given up.

The individual meetings weren’t long, but the process took months. “He was willing to go at the process until we wrote a bill,” Kildee said, and described Boehner’s technique of give and take. Kildee wanted something called “21st Century Learning Centers,” an after-school program in the bill. “He made me wait,” Kildee recalled with a wry grin, “because he needed to get some other things from me too.”  Kildee eventually gave up on several other issues, and the deal was done.

Miller, who at the time was the ranking Democrat on the full committee, said recently that he and other Democrats were the ones who were more willing to bend, not Boehner, adding that the education bill was a singular experience. Since then, Miller said, there’s been no similar cooperation. “No Child Left Behind was a moment in time that has been left behind,” Miller said.

When the politically rehabilitated Boehner campaigned for the House GOP leadership post in 2006 to replace the disgraced DeLay he touted his legislative coalition-building ability. "I am the only one with broad legislative skills and experience," Boehner said then, pointing to the education bill as well as a pension reform act

“To reach the leadership of the House, you
have to be willing to cut a lot of political deals.”

Isaac Wood, communications director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says that while Boehner may end up owing his ascension to the speakership to the Tea Party and his party’s right wing, he will never be mistaken for one of them.

“To reach the leadership of the House, you have to be willing to cut a lot of political deals.” Wood said of Boehner. “It would be difficult to consider him an outsider or anti-establishment type. He clearly is the Republican Establishment. The Tea Party understands that someone has to lead and should be someone who knows the ins and outs of Washington.”

Related links:
John Boehner rejects Joe Biden claim on Social Security (Politico)
Boehner Flip Flops on Taxes for High Earners (The Fiscal Times)
Boehner Budget Rollback would Cut Scores of Agencies (The Fiscal Times)