Boehner, or GOP, Must Bend
Sunday, February 12, 2006
As Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) moves to unite his fractious House Republicans, the newly elected House majority leader has another issue to finesse: his own views on some key issues, which have clashed with the stance of much of the Republican Party.
From illegal immigration to sanctions on China to an overhaul of the pension system, Boehner, as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, took ardently pro-business positions that were contrary to those of many in his party. Religious conservatives -- examining his voting record -- see him as a policymaker driven by small-government economic concerns, not theirs.
In the coming months, Boehner must decide whether to stick to his well-established beliefs and try to bend his party's stance or give in to the majority of the majority party.
"Everybody has to give up something for the good of the order, and the higher you go up, from rank and file to committee chairman to leadership, the more you give up," said Richard K. Armey, a retired GOP House majority leader from Texas.
In an interview, Boehner vowed to lead by consensus.
"This is going to take people a while to realize, but I'm a big believer in allowing all members of the team to participate," he said.
But he also stood by his positions, especially on a tough illegal immigration bill that passed in December with overwhelming Republican support over Boehner's opposition. One provision in the bill would mandate that every business verify the legality of every employee through the federal terrorism watch list and a database of Social Security numbers. For the bill's authors, the measure is central to choking off illegal immigrants' employment opportunities. To business groups and Boehner, it is unworkable.
"It is a huge unfunded mandate on employers," Boehner said.
He has made his opposition to bills larded with home-district projects proof of his readiness to change the way the Republican Party operates, while acknowledging that a silent majority of the party has no desire to end such "earmarks."
In a tough election year when some conservatives believe the GOP could lose control of Congress, division at the top could be trouble. "If the emphasis is on the split within the Republican caucus on a whole raft of issues, then he will be helping to bring about defeat," Paul Weyrich, a veteran conservative activist, said of Boehner.
To be sure, Boehner has sided with his fellow Republicans on the bulk of his votes, but he has shown an independent streak on some issues central to his party's agenda.
"He is a libertarian, much more so than anybody we've ever had in the leadership," said Weyrich, who favors government activism in some instances, especially on social issues.
Boehner was one of only 17 Republicans who voted against the border security bill. He helped pass a business-friendly revision of the private pension system late last year that included a Boehner-written measure that would allow major investment companies to provide investment advice to employees of companies whose retirement plans offer the advisers' investment products. That provision -- and much of the broader House bill -- is ardently opposed by a key Republican, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).
Boehner was one of only eight Republicans who opposed a major transportation and public works law passed in July and one of only 13 who opposed a major waterway development bill the same month. Both bills were stuffed with home-state projects.
Also in July, Boehner joined a minority of Republicans who unsuccessfully tried to scuttle legislation that would mandate sanctions for individuals, firms or countries selling arms to China.
In 2002, Boehner voted against a bill that would have permitted churches to engage in political campaigns without jeopardizing their tax exemptions. In that case, 46 Republicans joined most Democrats to kill the bill over heavy lobbying by the religious right.
Some of those votes won him few friends last month in the race for majority leader. Boehner said his position on immigration cost him "a lot of votes," although he still scored an upset over then-acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). His opposition to the religious activism bill contributed to an undercurrent of hostility from the religious right, which backed Blunt.
Some Republicans see Boehner as more attuned to the interests of big business than to the views of the voters. "In the past, he was just one more congressman. Now he's in a position to set the agenda," said Michael A. Fox, a commissioner in Butler County, Ohio, Boehner's home district. "My suspicion is that the chamber of commerce, the homebuilders and the national business groups' position will get far more attention than the average voter's."
A clash on some of the policies appears inevitable. Congressional Republicans see an immigration bill as one of the few pieces of legislation they must pass before the November midterm elections. The conflicting House and Senate pension measures must also be resolved this year. And disputes over U.S. policy toward China -- always roiling under the surface of GOP politics -- can emerge unexpectedly. Just last week, a bipartisan group of senators and House members proposed to reinstate an annual vote on China's trade status.
"There's a difference when you become a leader of a party from when you were representing a particular interest or constituency," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a foe of China. "I'm confident that he will choose" to change his views.
The immigration bill poses the clearest problem. The firebrands pushing the measure are not likely to accept Boehner's arguments, even if he is now the majority leader. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) challenged Boehner to "come and see what we see, and hopefully he will have a better understanding."
Armey said Boehner will have to temper his views to reflect the conference's. He cited his own votes for President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law and the authorization to go to war in Iraq as positions he never would have taken if he was not majority leader.
But Armey said Boehner will be in a position to bend the conference toward his views.
As for the pension measure, Boehner squaring off with the Senate Finance Committee chairman as the House Education Committee chairman is a far cry from facing Grassley as majority leader, Armey said. "Boehner, as education and labor [chairman], would have lost," Armey said. "Boehner as majority leader will likely win."