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Boehner, on track to lead House, reaches out to tea party as GOP wins majority

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:56 AM

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is now the nation's leading adversary to President Obama.

With broad Republican gains giving the GOP the majority in the House, Boehner, 60, is on track to become the 61st House speaker, something that seemed implausible in March 2009, when Obama's approval ratings were north of 60 percent and Republicans were still groping for a legislative strategy. His best friend, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), said Boehner was a "lone voice in the wilderness" then, cajoling his Republican Conference to believe that the GOP could pick up the nearly 40 seats needed in the midterm elections to claim the majority.

A consummate insider with 20 years of experience in Congress, including eight years in two stints in party leadership, Boehner tapped the activist energy of the tea party movement. At the same time, he raised tens of millions of dollars from a network of lobbyists and corporate friends that he had long cultivated, placing him at the nexus of what could be two competing tugs at his political heart.

On Tuesday night, via an Internet connection from a hotel suite in downtown Washington, Boehner's first congratulatory call was to the tea party. He made a televised call to tea party activists in his southwestern Ohio district, receiving a standing ovation on the other end of the line, according to an aide in the room.

"I'll never let you down," Boehner told the tea party crowd.

How Boehner navigates these two competing interests could determine the shape of the next two years. The conservative movement provided the energy and many of the candidates who won, particularly first-time politicians such as Larry Bucshon, a heart surgeon who easily claimed a Democratic seat in southwestern Indiana.

But Boehner is fond of recalling his days as Education Committee chairman, when he crafted the bipartisan No Child Left Behind legislation over the objections of his party's conservative flank. Many Boehner supporters say that effort could serve as a blueprint for how he will bring competing sides together, citing his more easygoing nature than the more partisan speakers of recent history, including Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

He has a sharp partisan side to him - his "hell no" speech during the first health-care debate became a YouTube sensation - but it tends to come with a more sarcastic, comedic tone.

Boehner said he has no real relationship with Obama. "I don't have any personal animosity toward the president. We're not very close, but I get along with him," he said in a late-September interview.

However, the two have jousted back and forth since Obama's election. Obama has made Boehner a frequent target of criticism over the years, poking fun at his deep tan during a black-tie dinner in 2009 and accusing him of being too close to lobbyists during this fall's midterm campaigns.

The personality mix among the congressional leaders will also be up in the air. Pelosi's future is uncertain; some Democratic insiders think she will step down from leadership now that Democrats will be in the minority. Her most likely successor would be Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the majority leader who Republicans have long considered a more accommodating figure than Pelosi.

The re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sets up an odd-couple partnership, not just because of the partisan differences. Reid is an introvert who is a soft talker, rarely ever seen on Washington's social scene. Boehner is gregarious, someone who loves to work the room and is frequently out and about with friends such as Latham.

Boehner's first stint in leadership, under Gingrich, ended with him getting ousted after the disappointing 1998 midterm elections, along with Gingrich.

Rather than leave, Boehner and his top advisers began plotting his long march back into leadership. His staff prepared a memo on a long-term plan to reclaim a leadership spot, focusing on his committee work and on fundraising for GOP candidates. He waited and waited, and it paid off in 2006, when he joined the leadership table just in time for Republicans to get kicked out of the majority. He applied many of the same principles to life in the minority as he did during his life in exile from leadership, plotting and planning.

"For some odd reason," Boehner said recently of his 1998 defeat, "I always believed that the opportunity was going to present itself. I didn't know when, I didn't know how, but all I knew was I had to just keep doing a good job every day and, when the opportunity presented itself, had to be ready."

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