The rise, fall and rise of John Boehner

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:57 AM

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.

(Timeline: John Boehner's path to power)

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.

"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.

His hands-off style has its critics among Republicans. Some believe he isn't a forceful enough presence to lead lawmakers where they are reluctant to go. In late September 2008, Boehner headed the effort to secure votes to pass the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, something the Bush administration was pushing.

Privately, he told his colleagues that the legislation was a "crap sandwich," but they had to support it or the entire financial sector would implode. On Sept. 29, 2008, only a third of the GOP conference - 65 Republicans - supported Boehner as the legislation went down and the stock markets plummeted nearly 800 points.

Inside his office an hour later, Boehner, taking long drags on his ever-present Camel cigarettes (he is exempted from the Capitol's smoking ban while in his office), explained that it was almost impossible to pull off the vote. He stuttered over the words "break arms," saying it just wasn't something he could do.

Four days later, when the House voted again and approved the measure, Boehner couldn't get his closest friends, such as Latham and Rep. Steven C. LaTourrette (R-Ohio), to back the legislation.

By Election Day 2008, Republican congressional leaders had an approval rating of just 24 percent, and Republicans suffered a second straight loss of more than 20 seats. But Boehner never considered stepping down. "There are a lot of factors that go into how elections are won and lost. If I had felt responsible for what happened in '06 and '08, I would have left," he said in late September.

'Leading the team'

The 2010 midterms, however, are a different story: Boehner feels responsible for the GOP's campaign strategy, both in the House and at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He has campaigned at more than 170 events around the country and has raised $44 million for GOP candidates, helping them so they will help him when it comes time to choose their leader.

"I'm leading the team," he said.

He has become a major draw for special interests, particularly large businesses. His own reelection account serves largely as a transfer vehicle for donations to the NRCC to use in other, competitive races - since he wins every two years with about 70 percent of the vote. This election cycle, political action committees have donated $2.4 million to Boehner's reelection effort.

After encountering tea party activists in his travels, Boehner met with his GOP colleagues and delivered a message: Meet these folks in your districts. "Get on the right side of these people," he said, according to one aide in the room.

Boehner said he feels a certain kinship with the outsider candidates, who remind him of himself 20 years ago. Back then, Boehner was the president of Nucite Sales, a plastics company in southwestern Ohio, and a member of the state legislature. When the local congressman got into an ethics scandal, Boehner jumped into the Republican primary and went on to win the election.

Boehner immediately made himself a nuisance in Washington. He joined up with a group of other freshman, dubbed the "Gang of Seven," and exposed a series of scandals at the House bank. They were rebels against the institution, and by the summer of 1994 Gingrich brought Boehner, then in his second term, into his fold.

Under Gingrich, Boehner rose to the No. 4 position in the House leadership. As the chairman of the GOP conference, he was in charge of connections to outside groups and K Street. He learned to play a key fundraising role, leading to an infamous moment when he distributed corporate PAC donations to other Republicans on the House floor. (He later apologized and helped pass a rule forbidding distributing donations on the floor.)

When Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich resigned under pressure. Boehner was voted out of the GOP leadership. As he walked out of the Capitol basement meeting room, he told his longtime chief of staff, Barry Jackson: "I'm going back to my committees. And I'm going to work hard and I'm going to let my work speak for itself."

Jackson drafted a long-term mission statement with the goal of getting Boehner back among his party's leaders. Among the proposals: raising campaign money for his colleagues.

By 2006, Boehner was once again on the rise. In January of that year, after DeLay resigned as majority leader amid a series of scandals, he pounced. He sent a 37-page mission statement to more than 230 House Republicans, declaring that "a majority that matters" must reclaim the reform mantle, both in terms of ethics and in terms of how the chamber was run.

Boehner's bid to succeed DeLay was based on his promise to be a different kind of leader. If Gingrich and DeLay epitomized the class bullies in his colleagues' eyes, Boehner gave off the vibe of a cool kid who didn't need to pick on those who were less popular.

He grew up working class in a two-bedroom house with 11 siblings, but Boehner is now a country club Republican. He lives in a wealthy neighborhood near the Wetherington Golf and Country Club in Butler County, Ohio, where his hectic campaign travel schedule has left less time for the game he loves. He grumbles that he has broken 80 just twice this year on his home course.

Inside BoehnerLand

In Washington, Boehner is surrounded by a cadre of loyal, dedicated staffers and former staff members that forms the innermost circle of what they call BoehnerLand. Jackson, his chief of staff and confidante, is revered as someone who can deliver him news that he won't hear from anyone else.

"There have been times when [someone] might have mentioned, 'Hey, John needs to think about this, you know.' And rather than going to John, we'd go to Barry, because he can talk to him like nobody else," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a former House member who is close to Boehner.

Boehner is not close friends with any of the other elected Republican leaders, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No. 3 leader as chairman of the Republican Conference. Instead, he has a core group of friends from the rank and file in both the House and the Senate. First among equals is Latham, who was elected in the last GOP wave, in 1994. Latham holds no leadership title and aspires to nothing more than higher seniority on the Appropriations Committee. He has free access to Boehner, serving as his eyes and ears on other lawmakers.

He and Latham are part of a "supper club" that also includes Chambliss and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), another former House member. Along with other lawmakers, they can frequently be found dining at restaurants on Capitol Hill.

His wife, Deborah, spends most of her time back home in Butler County, and his two daughters are grown. When he is in Washington, Boehner lives in a basement apartment near the Capitol that he rents from one of his lobbyist friends, John Milne of mCapitol Management.

Boehner has long drawn attention for his close relationship with lobbyists. His largest corporate donor over the past 20 years is AK Steel, an Ohio company whose lobbyists helped launch his political career in the mid-1980s. He has also accepted large checks from the financial services and insurance industries.

"I talk to everybody all the time," Boehner said. "The question is not how close I am to them, the question is whether the people agree with what I'm doing."

Now that he may be on the verge of becoming speaker, Boehner finds he has many more friends who can't wait to meet him. Every October, he holds a charity dinner in Washington to raise money for Catholic schools. (He used to co-host the event with Kennedy.) Last year, it drew a modest crowd, and Boehner pleaded with those in attendance to recruit more donors. This year, he had no such trouble. When Boehner arrived for the dinner, the ballroom was packed.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company