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The partisan rancor beneath Boehner's rhetoric

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A02

"I've made it pretty clear," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said, "that if we are a majority and I'm lucky enough to be speaker, I'm going to run the House differently than it's being run today and differently than it was run under Republicans in the past."

Boehner (R-Ohio) was sitting in his Capitol office, an ever-present pack of cigarettes near his fingertips. It was a few hours before he would end up on the receiving end of an attack from President Obama for having described the financial regulatory bill as "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." That remark, to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, would bring him heaps of criticism all week.

Boehner's week was hardly helped by a comment from his former colleague Joe Scarborough, who volunteered on his MSNBC program, "Morning Joe," that the minority leader had a reputation of not being a particularly hard worker. A Politico story pointing to tensions between Boehner and some of the younger GOP House leaders rounded out a trifecta of unwelcome publicity.

There are certainly enough House districts in play to give Boehner's party the 39 additional seats needed to take back the majority it lost in 2006. Boehner said Republicans have "a great opportunity" to take control but concedes they still face "an uphill climb."

If the GOP were to gain the upper hand, and Boehner were elected as speaker, the question is what he and his party would do with that power. Boehner listed three priorities. First, he said, was a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline -- a test his party badly flunked the last time it was in the majority. Second, he said, was to engage in "an adult conversation with the American people" about the need to rein in entitlement spending. And third, he wants to increase bipartisan cooperation in the House.

He offered few concrete thoughts about the GOP agenda but promised that the party will make that clearer before November. "I'm not Barack Obama and I'm not Nancy Pelosi," he said. "I say what I mean and I mean what I say, and we're not going to put anything in a document that we don't have every intention of accomplishing."

He was explicit about health care. "We believe that the health-care bill needs to be repealed and replaced," he said. Beyond saying Republicans would scrub the budget for wasteful spending, a pledge regularly made and ignored by politicians of both parties, he offered no examples of what programs Republicans would actually cut.

Nor did he seem eager to tip his hand on the terms of entitlement reform. In his interview with the Tribune-Review, Boehner volunteered that the Social Security retirement age might need to be raised to 70 for younger workers but he would go no further.

Asked whether partial privatization of Social Security, which Republicans pushed unsuccessfully in 2005, would be part of a GOP agenda, he twice replied, "I have no idea."

Later, he called back to clarify, saying that what he meant to say was that, until Republicans complete their process of soliciting ideas from the American people, there will be no answer to that question. "We're not going to prejudge what's going to come out of this listening project."

That hardly sounded like a politician eager to provoke an adult conversion with the American people.

Boehner's third priority seemed to animate him most. "The institution up here is broken," he said. "I've seen speakers sacrifice the institution for their own partisan political gain time and time again."

He recalled his time as a committee chairman, when he worked cooperatively with Edward M. Kennedy and other Democrats on education legislation. "If Ted Kennedy and I can work together and find enough common ground to move the ball down the field, there isn't any reason why members should not be spending more time working together," he said.

Skeptics will doubt Boehner's sincerity or capability, given the polarized environment in Washington and the role he has played the past 18 months in helping erect a wall of opposition -- obstruction, say the Democrats -- to Obama's agenda.

They will recall Boehner's fiery and impassioned speech on the House floor at the close of the health-care debate -- punctuated by "Hell, no! . . . Hell, no!" -- as indicative of a leader who has given in to the angriest of those in the party's base. They will wonder whether the Boehner who worked with Kennedy and others is the kind of speaker anti-Obama Republicans really want.

Boehner said there will be plenty of disagreements with the White House if Republicans are in charge of the House. But he added: "A lot of scar tissue's been built up, by both parties, over the last 10 years. It needs to be solved for the long-term good of the country."

Sixteen years ago, as Republicans were on the cusp of winning control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Newt Gingrich talked about his role as future speaker in flamboyant terms. "I think I am a transformational figure," he said at the time, offering a preview of the clashing, confrontational style he wielded in his battles with the Clinton White House.

Boehner was a Gingrich lieutenant in those days, though he grew weary of the Georgia congressman's tactics. Eventually he fell out of favor and, after Gingrich's departure, out of leadership. In the interview, he conveyed a sense that he would adopt a different approach but when asked in what ways he would be a different kind of speaker than Gingrich, he said, "I haven't thought a great deal about it."

Boehner believes Republicans have not yet earned back the trust of the American people. "We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," he said. "And then with what happened in the presidential race, we paid for it again. We've made some progress. . . . But we've got to continue to prove to people that we are who we say we are."

But he dismissed a question about whether the party is being pushed too far to the right by "tea party" activists or candidates who enjoy their support, such as Senate nominees Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada. "The voters in those states have the opportunity to decide who the nominee's going to be," he said. "All I can tell you is what we have done here. There's been a great deal of unity."

Boehner also said Obama bears considerable responsibility for the poisoned politics in Washington. "I remember all the conversations with the president about post-partisan politics. He's done nothing to solve that. I remember all the conversations with the president about working in the middle. None of that. It wasn't about the specifics about this, that or whatever. It's about the overall direction he's gone. He has not lived up to his promises."

Four months before the midterms, Boehner does not sound in a conciliatory mood, raising the question of whether he could lead a party that has thrived through its united and angry opposition to the president and still bring harmony on Capitol Hill. In a few months, he could be put to that test.

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