The freshman representative stood in front of a throng of puzzled-looking Republican congressmen. Their leader, John Boehner, had surprised the newcomer moments earlier by asking him to address a 2009 party retreat on how he had knocked off a Republican congressman in a primary. The freshman, a hard-charging Utah conservative named Jason Chaffetz, looked out at his new colleagues and said the first thing that came to his mind.
“I am your worst nightmare.”
He might as well have been speaking to the leader himself. Boehner already was feeling the heat from relatively young conservatives such as Chaffetz who wanted to push their agenda harder and faster, inspired by a passionate trio of Republican stars known as the Young Guns. Then-Republican Whip Eric Cantor, his deputy whip, Kevin McCarthy, and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan all had captivated House conservatives with their aggressive messages and tactics. Cantor especially had made a name for himself by arguing that the party should go on the offensive more against House Democrats. Privately, some Republicans said they would vote for Cantor over Boehner in a leadership fight. Now, increasingly, as the Young Guns’ popularity grew, Boehner sought to bring fledgling congressmen like Chaffetz into his fold.
Some advisers to the representatives thought such moves should have come sooner. While Boehner had been slow to woo Chaffetz during his 2008 campaign, Cantor and McCarthy had wasted no time in getting close to the freshman.
First, Cantor telephoned with congratulations and a pledge of help before 8 a.m. the morning after Chaffetz’s primary triumph — part of Cantor’s effort to make friends with new arrivals, gaining allies before Boehner ever met them. Then, McCarthy, nearing the end of only his first term in the House but already being groomed for a key leadership position, called Chaffetz with lavish encouragement of his own.
A generational bond helped fuel the relationship: The 40-somethings had children about the same age, along with a shared passion for exercise regimens, long work hours and political uses for social media — all supplementing their prodigious ambitions. Chaffetz expressed appreciation for his new comrades, whose appetite for feisty politics had linked them with Ryan. Boehner enjoyed new members’ official loyalties, but Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan generally had their hearts.
While stressing his allegiance to Boehner, the 44-year-old Chaffetz sees an impatience in himself and his friends that separates them from older members. “We’re the generation that demands and wants things right now,” says Chaffetz, who is contemplating a 2012 primary challenge against Utah’s senior Republican senator, Orrin Hatch.
The 61-year-old Boehner — who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story — “is trying to ride all the right waves right now, and the Young Guns are symbolic of that wave,” Chaffetz observes. He believes that Boehner recognizes a natural tension there, and is grateful that the speaker has reached out to young, aggressive conservatives such as himself. “The Young Guns have shown people that it’s not just going to be business as usual. ... [Boehner] is the leader of this party ... and he’s one of the old guard. But, see, he was willing to adapt.”
The House has a freshman class of 87 GOP members, whose most impassioned supporters — outspoken conservatives and tea party loyalists who have long voiced suspicions about Boehner’s passion for their causes — are poised to rebel against any deep compromises that Boehner might make on hot-button fiscal issues. The new members know they ignore those feverish supporters at their peril.
Those internal divisions among Republicans recently whipsawed Boehner during
the fierce battle over federal spending cuts, a drama played out during a desperate eleventh-hour effort to approve funding necessary to avert a government shutdown. Publicly, the struggle was cast as a high-stakes game of chicken with Senate Democrats and the Obama White House, as Boehner and the GOP leadership team pressed for $61 billion in spending cuts, only to settle for a compromise of $38 billion. Boehner called the deal imperfect yet “a step forward.”
Privately, the more dangerous battle was being fought among Republicans. Boehner had reason for fresh concern about his status as party leader, after a quarter of the Republican conference abandoned him on the issue of compromising at $38 billion. Fifty-nine Republicans, including second-termer Chaffetz and 27 freshmen, voted against the compromise, generally seeing it as an abdication of the party’s 2010 promise to slash spending deeply. Perhaps most worrisome for Boehner, Cantor subtly distanced himself from the deal even while offering staunch public support. Privately, Cantor told a few House Republicans that he had played no real role in the negotiations, which two of Cantor’s House admirers read both as a suggestion that he would have negotiated more aggressively and as a veiled reminder that he would be a natural successor if the GOP ever soured on Boehner.
At the end of the battle, a few dissenters to the deal thought the outcome meant that Boehner had failed to quell the old doubts about him — that he did not have a strong enough ideological backbone and preferred deals to duels.
How Boehner navigates these tripwires in the next few months, trying to finesse Democrats and his party’s fervent conservatives, will likely determine the fate of his speakership. Any serious miscalculation might incite a challenge from a key lieutenant or insurgent, a possibility keenly understood by close friends of Boehner’s, who remember his stunning loss of a party leadership position during the ’90s. This time, old associates observe, Boehner and those closest to him have a clearer sense of the dangers: They know that, in any political family, there is always a smiling face privately yearning to take over.
It is a staple of Boehner stories to note that he grew up on the outskirts of Cincinnati, the second of 12 kids who sometimes found it more comfortable to sleep outdoors than inside their cramped two-bedroom house. His youth and early adulthood also consisted of a steady, if grueling, rise. He helped in his family’s bar from the time he was a young child, played linebacker in high school under future Notre Dame football coach Gerry Faust, worked his way through Xavier University, and rapidly climbed the professional ladder at a plastics and packaging firm to become its president. He then jumped into local politics, captured a seat in the Ohio legislature, and, in 1990, won election to Congress after having the good luck to face a Republican incumbent involved in a sex scandal with a minor.
Highly focused and skilled at organizing, Boehner quickly made his mark by joining six young Republican members in zealously investigating ethical lapses by other members. Dubbed the Gang of Seven, the insurgents helped reveal a scandal benefiting members at the House bank and expose corruption among members illegally trading stamps for cash at the House post office.
In 1994, Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, the party’s new ideological whirlwind, asked the young congressman for help drafting a Gingrich-inspired conservative manifesto, the “Contract With America,” a platform on which Republicans hoped to seize control of the House. After the Republicans gained 54 seats to win the majority, and GOP members chose Gingrich to be the next speaker, they tapped the fast-moving two-term Boehner as House Republican Conference chairman. Now No. 4 in Republican leadership, Boehner would be in charge of spreading the party’s message. “It’s like becoming a made man,” observes Oklahoma congressman Tom Cole, once head of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
But in short time, Boehner’s good fortune became a relentless headache. Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay couldn’t get along, Armey remembers. DeLay and Boehner never forged a connection, according to former advisers. And Gingrich, who in time would be sanctioned by the House for violation of ethics rules, exasperated the others with political strategies that he changed on the fly.
By late 1998, after Republicans lost five seats in the midterm elections in the wake of a government shutdown, Gingrich gave up his speakership and was succeeded by Illinois congressman Dennis Hastert. Gingrich’s voluntary departure wasn’t enough for a disgruntled band of Republicans searching for leadership heads to roll. Some members privately groused that Boehner had been a poor party messenger. At the Republican Conference’s closed-door, private-ballot leadership vote, the party deposed Boehner in favor of a young charismatic figure, Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts, the party’s first African American in House leadership.
Boehner became a quiet, almost forgotten presence. Then, to the surprise of some of his allies, the once intense conservative crusader found a bipartisan mission in 2001, when President George W. Bush asked him to shepherd a Bush priority, the No Child Left Behind Act. The bill’s passage and other successes helped Boehner make new friends with an array of establishment Republicans.
He also began rebuilding alliances with congressional members who had turned against him during the leadership fight three years earlier. Patrick Tiberi, a fellow Ohio Republican, recalls being stunned in moments by his friend’s equanimity: “There were people who were not John Boehner fans — who helped dump John Boehner before — that he reached out to.”
In the fall of 2001, Boehner convened a secret meeting with Iowa congressman Tom Latham and a small, trusted group of other House allies at a Crystal City restaurant, mainly to discuss how he could get back into leadership. No one knew how long Hastert would remain as speaker, or how loyal the GOP troops were to DeLay, by then the majority leader, and to Missouri’s Roy Blunt, the majority whip.
Boehner bided his time. Then DeLay resigned as majority leader early in 2006, amid a campaign finance scandal in Texas. Blunt had the inside track to succeed him, but Boehner jumped into the race, portraying himself as a reformer, and won. By the end of the year, with the GOP having lost control of the House and Hastert leaving, Boehner was elected as minority leader and became the House’s top Republican.
But it was not long before several of Boehner’s congressional friends and advisers began worrying about possible threats to his leadership from a young and hungry generation of rivals.
During the early months of their relationship, Chaffetz tried to figure out Boehner. He was irked by positions such as Boehner’s co-authorship of No Child Left Behind, a bill that compelled states to set achievement standards to receive federal funding.
“I was very skeptical of him,” remembers Chaffetz, who regarded the educational law as a federal intrusion on states. “He wasn’t as conservative as I wanted him to be.”
There was also a stylistic and generational divide between them, which Chaffetz noticed immediately when he met Boehner. “He’s sort of the Rat Pack/Dean Martin type, you know, with the cigarette in the hand and the tan and the deep growly voice,” Chaffetz says. “He started in the hole with me.”
Boehner, who largely controlled committee assignments, had casually asked what House committees Chaffetz might want to serve on. Chaffetz answered that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was his top choice.
Chaffetz received a call from Boehner aide Trevor Kolego shortly before the announcement of committee assignments. Kolego said he had bad news: Chaffetz had not been selected for the oversight committee. Worse, he was being assigned to committees he had specified as among his least desirable.
A crestfallen Chaffetz took a deep breath, as he remembers. Searching for a graceful response, he asked Kolego to thank Boehner and reaffirmed his support for the leader.
Kolego called Chaffetz back the same day and said, “Congratulations. You got all three committees you wanted.”
Chaffetz exulted, but asked, “What happened?”
“Oh, that’s just John,” Kolego replied, as Chaffetz remembers. “He wanted to figure out what kind of [expletive] you were going to be.”
It was a reminder that, now as then, Boehner has little use for whining congressional colleagues or staff members. Having risen from the political ashes of his loss in the late ’90s to become the leader of House Republicans, he expects the same composure and commitment from other congressional members who suffer painful disappointments, according to two former aides.
But the heralded Young Guns — Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan — represent a new, more pugnacious Republican vision, with sometimes different priorities. No one is ever likely to be called a “Boehner Republican,” because Boehner does not lead House Republicans on matters of policy so much as take his cues from them. As Boehner’s team negotiated with Senate Democrats and President Obama’s administration early this year over an initial round of spending cuts, several Republican members made no secret of their determination to break from their party’s leadership if they believed Boehner was giving away too much. A group of GOP freshmen asserted ownership over parts of the fiscal debate almost immediately. In a March vote that ratcheted up tensions, 21 freshmen opposed a three-week, $6 billion compromise stopgap funding measure crafted by Boehner’s team that won approval despite the defections of Chaffetz and 53 other House Republicans.
The ranks of the dissidents have steadily grown. Several freshmen have joined Ohio congressman Jim Jordan and other prominent figures on the Republican Study Committee — a House caucus dedicated to steep cuts — to steadfastly pressure Boehner. Even ordinarily diplomatic Republican members see no upside in pretending they will necessarily follow Boehner’s lead. “Some of us would fight it out rather than accept a deal ...” says Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. “I think that Boehner understands that line between getting a deal and fighting it out. ... We’re not going to walk off the cliff just because the person in front of us is walking off the cliff.”
Privately, Boehner’s detractors still doubt his bond to conservative values, on everything from fiscal issues to the size and scope of the federal government. Others rankle at old slights. A House Republican irritably recalled Boehner needling him about his weight, and another recounted Boehner chiding him as the member reached into the House cloakroom refrigerator for a snack. Boehner snickered and said: “No.”
Cantor’s allies tell stories about Boehner routinely ribbing Cantor over his clothes, precisely trimmed haircut and Italian loafers. For a long while, a seemingly baffled Cantor said nothing.
Finally, one day at a Republican Conference meeting in early 2009, having heard yet another Boehner comment about his clothes, Cantor retorted, “Well, it’s a lot better than that horrible green sweater you’ve got on.”
Some in the room laughed. Boehner smiled.
Fourteen years separate the two, a divide not nearly as great as the differences in their personal and professional styles. Cantor’s roots are upper-class and genteel Virginian; Boehner’s working-class and gruff Ohioan. With his deep tan, Camel cigarettes, love of golf and propensity for holding court after-hours with a glass of merlot, Boehner sometimes blurs work with play. “John’s just always had this ability to relax and make everything look just so darn easy, even in tough times,” Armey says.
Cantor typically works 14-to-16-hour days. “If Cantor has a drink with you,” one longtime comrade jokes, “he’s probably coming with a printed agenda.”
Cantor, 47, has been dogged in his climb since his days as an undergraduate at George Washington University. He interned on the Hill for his local Virginia congressman, Thomas Bliley, and served as Bliley’s driver during one reelection campaign. Not long after earning a law degree from the College of William & Mary and entering his family’s real estate business, he plunged into local politics, winning election to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Nine years later, in 2000, with Bliley’s endorsement, he captured his old boss’s congressional seat.
In Washington, he discovered a new mentor in Blunt, the Republican House whip who appointed Cantor his chief deputy, putting him on the leadership track in just his second term. In 2008, high-ranking officials in John McCain’s presidential campaign privately scorned reports that Cantor was under serious consideration for the vice presidential spot, rumors they believe came from associates of Cantor’s.
By year’s end, Blunt had given up his leadership post. Cantor won the whip job, the clear Republican No. 2. Friends of Cantor and Boehner were wondering whether Cantor would challenge Boehner for speaker if Republicans regained control of the House.
Barack Obama entered the White House pushing for an $800 billion stimulus bill. Republican leaders swiftly announced their opposition. Within the Republican Conference during early 2009, Cantor received much of the credit for devising strategies to fight the stimulus package. He was first to question the true depth of the electorate’s loyalty to Obama’s agenda. According to a Cantor loyalist and a Boehner ally, a pollster told a closed-door Republican leadership meeting: “We have a problem.” Private polling revealed that Obama enjoyed the support of about 70 percent of respondents, with most of those surveyed apparently in favor of more government activism.
The poll could not have been worse news for the Republicans. But Cantor attributed the survey to Obama’s post-election glow. He called for another poll. The results of the new survey indicated that, while Americans had enormous personal affection for Obama, just as many had doubts about the new president’s policies. Cantor soon publicly declared that his goal was to deliver every Republican vote against the stimulus package. The Democrats, holding a large House majority, would obviously win, but the Republicans’ solidarity would shape the session, Cantor said, according to colleagues.
Privately, some Boehner associates asked: What about the embarrassment if Cantor failed to deliver on his prediction? What could his motive be other than to draw attention to himself?
But on the day of the stimulus vote, even Cantor’s Republican skeptics had to acknowledge his success. Although the bill passed, it failed to receive a single vote from the 177 House Republicans. The White House would be on the defensive, with no claim to bipartisanship. Dissenting Republicans were united.
The greatest tensions between the two Republican leaders came as Cantor built his profile before the 2010 midterm elections, often with his own political projects. As Boehner sought to woo voters by developing a platform that he and others dubbed the “Pledge to America,” Cantor created a Web site called YouCut, in which, among other things, he encouraged Republican activists to offer ideas for slashing federal spending.
The current staffs of Cantor and Boehner stress that both offices have viewed YouCut not as a competition with but as a complement to the Boehner-authorized pledge, which received the support of everyone else in Republican leadership, including Cantor. “Boehner, Cantor and our entire leadership team work closely to make progress on the American people’s top priorities,” says Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel, a sentiment echoed by Cantor spokesperson Brad Dayspring: “Effective leadership teams are made up of different people with different personalities, ... and this team works together closely.”
But other associates of both men, including former advisers, claim that some Boehner aides voiced anger to their Cantor counterparts about YouCut last year. They viewed it as a transparent effort to steal attention from Boehner and the “Pledge to America.” Privately, some of Cantor’s friends have reacted with amusement and contempt, saying “Boehnerland” is paranoid about any new Cantor initiative. “Eric put together YouCut in about four days really ...,” a Cantor ally says. “Eric’s was just a Web site, but Boehnerland doesn’t recognize the difference. They just saw a problem because it was Eric’s.”
YouCut came during the same year that Cantor, along with McCarthy and Ryan, wrote “Young Guns,” a book that set out a broad Republican vision without making any mention of Boehner as a significant player. The irritation grew from Boehner’s side, which viewed the book as yet another distraction from the “Pledge to America.”
The Young Guns have received much credit, especially from young GOP members, for helping Republicans reclaim the House majority. They cite Cantor and McCarthy as indispensable factors in the victories of many of the 87 GOP freshmen. “The Young Guns really came in and created a vision of who we were going to be,” Chaffetz says. “They also provided the methodology to help us get there.”
No one received more credit for devising that methodology than the party’s No. 3, McCarthy, who has a reputation as a campaign mastermind dating to his days as Republican leader of the California State Assembly. Boehner gave McCarthy, 46, two high-profile tasks during the 2010 campaign: to co-write the “Pledge to America” and recruit promising congressional candidates.
Some Capitol Hill observers believe that the greatest beneficiary of McCarthy’s climb has been the leader who sparked it. Boehner has achieved what Hill veterans commonly describe as a “buy-in” from McCarthy, a term suggesting that, after all their close work together, McCarthy is now generally linked with Boehner and the speaker’s aims, like it or not. Their relationship reflects an institutional reality of the House. In the face of possible dissent, speakers tend to reward restless lieutenants and up-and-comers with plum assignments. In return, a lieutenant can’t openly defy the leader without looking like a troublemaker who has placed personal ambition over party unity. Boehner had the key players on board before the session ever began.
Boehner also has achieved a measure of buy-in from Cantor, whose chief responsibility, after all, involves shepherding an agenda largely set by Boehner after gauging the temperature of their conference. Even as he seemed to signal his discomfort with the negotiations over spending cuts, Cantor has expressed unity with Boehner.
In April, Cantor watched as conservative darlings such as Arizona representative Jeff Flake flatly rejected the compromise position of Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan on the 2011 budget. For the dissenters, the cuts were not nearly deep enough. Cantor momentarily looked less like a vigorous insurgent than an establishment party figure, shackled to Boehner.
At 41, Paul Ryan, the new budget committee chair and the youngest of the Guns’ prominent trio, is a star among conservatives. No other young House Republican enjoys more adoration from his peers. Many House conservatives, including Chaffetz, openly hope he will one day run for president. Ryan’s stature was earned in part by his authorship in 2009 of the “Roadmap for America’s Future” and subsequent policy papers, in which he argued for deep entitlement reform.
Ryan was concerned enough about the Republican leaders’ reaction to the “Roadmap” that he didn’t give them the first look at it. Instead, long before its formal release, he sent it to a friend, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Some in Boehnerland were puzzled. Asked why he had initially bypassed the Republican leadership, Ryan says: “I figured it’s better to ask for forgiveness later than to ask for permission first.”
Although Ryan is not an official part of the House leadership, his stature and his role in the budget process invest him with clout. In January, talking about the proposed budget he was in the process of drafting, he carefully staked out a measure of independence from Boehner and his two Young Guns colleagues. By then, his reputation and influence virtually guaranteed that his role in the 2012 budget debate would match Boehner’s, if not eclipse it. He had steeled himself for the possibility of an internal battle with anyone, including Republican leaders.
“I gotta look at myself in the mirror,” he said in January. “I really don’t care about the personal political ramifications of these things, or I wouldn’t be doing these budgets or the ‘Roadmap.’ ... We can’t afford to worry about hurting someone’s feelings or bruising egos.” Later, he added: “There should be skepticism of [House Republicans], because we blew it the last time. We talked like fiscal conservatives, and then we governed like fiscal liberals.”
He and Boehner “have a very frank and direct relationship,” he said, though he acknowledged there were limits to how much each knew about the other’s work. Ryan expressed uncertainty over whether Boehner had ever read the “Roadmap,” though Boehner’s office insists the speaker read it long ago.
Boehner associates believe that, in late 1998, then-incoming congressman Ryan cast his secret ballot for J.C. Watts when Boehner lost his position in House leadership. A Boehner friend recounts that a furious congressman lashed out at Ryan after the vote, accusing him of having betrayed Boehner. Whatever the truth, Boehner swiftly pulled Ryan into his circle this year, just as he did earlier with McCarthy. In looking for a fresh Republican face to deliver the official party response this year to Obama’s State of the Union, he quickly turned to Ryan.
With the Republican conference backing Ryan’s effort to overhaul Medicare, a once noncommittal Boehner endorsed the controversial proposal, part of a 2012 budget that proposes $6.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. Meanwhile, the two other Young Guns stars have made a habit of dutifully emerging from Washington summit discussions with an ebullient Boehner. On a day when they had a luncheon discussion with Obama about their dueling visions, the three Republican leaders smiled for cameras, in a unity tableau. Boehner spoke. Cantor cocked his head toward him in that practiced, reverential way of No. 2s. The tensions between the men had not disappeared, nor had the dangers to Boehner’s leadership. In the weeks ahead, Cantor found ways to remind colleagues when he had not embraced a Boehner move. But Boehner was still standing. It was another reminder that, for the moment at least, Boehner still has the buy-ins he needs, with a grip on the levers that matter most.
“He does it, and you aren’t even aware he’s doing it, until it’s done,” Chaffetz says. “Maybe it’s just that he knows how this place works. Anybody who’s underestimated him has already paid for it.”
Michael Leahy is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at LeahyM@washpost.com.