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The rise, fall and rise of John Boehner
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.
"A lot of scar tissue has been built up on both sides of the aisle," said Boehner, who says he would create an atmosphere in which Democrats wouldn't have to resort to the kind of tactics he has used against them.
"If there's a more open process, and members are allowed to participate, guess what? It lets the steam out of the place," he said in a speech last month at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Democrats aren't buying Boehner's vow to bring courtesy back to the Capitol. They describe him as the consummate partisan player who has shown no inclination to work with them, at least not in recent years. The Boehner of 2010, they say, bears little resemblance to the reform-minded congressman of a decade ago, who befriended Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) when the two cooperated to push No Child Left Behind through Congress.
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), a liberal Democrat who once worked with Boehner on education issues, said the speaker-in-waiting would never reach out in that way today. "That was in a galaxy far, far away, in a place doesn't exist anymore," Miller said. "Don't translate that one-off moment into lasting bipartisanship."
If Boehner is serious about trying to reform the ways of Washington, he may have a difficult time convincing some in his party to go along - especially with the prospect of a slim majority and a bevy of tea party freshmen arriving in the capital with what they believe is a mandate to challenge the leadership.
No grand plans
In the fall of 1994, Gingrich spent long afternoons plotting the first 100 days of his tenure as speaker. After the 2006 elections, Pelosi spelled out an ambitious agenda that began with a promise to pass a major piece of legislation every day for the first week of the new session.
Boehner has no such grand plans in mind if he winds up presiding over a Republican majority. He does not fancy himself a grandiose political thinker in the mold of Gingrich or a steely operator like DeLay or Pelosi.
Those close to him say he would probably bring a few big items up for votes fairly quickly. One would be a package of spending cuts based on points outlined in the GOP's Pledge to America. He is also mulling the timing of a long-shot bill to repeal - or significantly curtail - the Democrats' health-care law.
Never a details man, Boehner has not specified budget cuts or how much they would save, or what his alternative to the health-care law would look like.
He let out a long sigh when asked where he would look to work with Obama.
"Only time will tell. I came here to fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government, and to the extent that he wants to work with us in terms of where we're going, I would certainly welcome it," he said.