The rise, fall and rise of John Boehner

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Just before Thanksgiving 1998, John A. Boehner hit bottom. The Ohio congressman, once a comer in the Republican Party, was unceremoniously removed from his post in the House leadership. Boehner's colleagues had a win-at-all-costs mind-set; he saw no point in antagonizing the Democratic minority just because he had the power to do so.

That night, Boehner commiserated with his closest friends at Sam and Harry's steakhouse in downtown Washington. He kept a brave face over glasses of red wine, until Republican Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa rose to toast his best friend. That's when Boehner, who is prone to tears (it drives him crazy, but he can't help it), lost it.

"Everybody in the whole room cried," he said.

Twelve years later, Boehner, 60, is on the verge of completing a remarkable political comeback. He is now the minority leader, and if Republicans win control of the House in next week's midterm elections, he will almost certainly become speaker.

His rise is partly the result of a tireless fundraising operation that has poured money into fellow Republicans' campaigns, and partly a reward for his willingness to fashion himself into the uncompromising leader of the opposition to President Obama.

During the climate-change debate in June 2009, for instance, Boehner used his position's special privilege for limitless speeches to speak for more than hour, a mini-filibuster that delayed the vote until after network news broadcasts.

In March of this year, during the health-care debate, he led Republicans in a chant of "Hell, no!"

White House staffers are still angry that Boehner began opposing Obama's agenda immediately after the inauguration. Just hours before the new president was to visit Congress to seek support for his $814 billion stimulus plan, Boehner snubbed him by calling a news conference to denounce it. That helped set the tone for his two-year effort to block Obama at every turn.

Boehner chalks up his theatrical obstructionism to the reality of being minority leader: He must shout to be heard.

Yet he insists he will be a very different kind of politician if the GOP wins Congress and he is elected speaker. He'll help bring the animosity between the two sides under control, he says, by allowing Democrats greater freedom to have their say on the floor of the House and letting them bring their proposals to a vote.

As it is now, the party in power routinely uses rules and procedural tricks to prevent the minority from offering bills and amendments. In retaliation, members of the minority use what few tools they have to obstruct the majority.

That's how it has been ever since the combative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), once a mentor to Boehner, became House speaker in 1994, the last time the GOP retook Congress from the Democrats. After Gingrich, Republican leader Tom DeLay, known as the "Hammer," took this punitive style of leadership to the next level. And the current Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), has advanced a similar zero-sum approach to politics.

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