Rebel Or Compromiser: Which Boehner Will Be Speaker?

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Newly elected members of Congress arrive Monday in Washington to begin freshman orientation, while the current lawmakers, still with a few weeks left in their terms, open a lame-duck session.

Behind closed doors, both parties will meet to elect leadership for the new Congress, which begins in January. It will look very different in the House — with a Republican majority and a new speaker, likely to be John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner has a complicated history in Congress, one that hints at what kind of speaker he may be.

Looking back on Boehner's 20 years in Congress, a duality emerges: Boehner the Rebel and Boehner the Compromiser.

After he was elected in 1990, Boehner arrived in Washington ready to rouse the rabble. He and a few other freshmen denounced what had become business as usual in Congress — from subsidized haircuts to special banking privileges. The Gang of Seven, as they were dubbed, targeted any lawmaker regardless of party.

Later, Boehner was one of a few Republicans who wrote a simple, succinct document that outlined an agenda of vast reforms in Congress — the Contract with America. And with that document, the party swept the House and Senate elections in the Republican revolution of 1994.

"It really boils down to one word: credibility," said Boehner. "As a political party, we've kept our word. We've done exactly what we said we would do, and we're going to continue to keep our word and earn the trust of the America people for this institution and for our political party."

This Boehner is tough, conservative, ideological, uncompromising. He entered the Republican leadership ready to fight for reforms and a smaller government — regardless of the political price. When his party shut down the government in a stalemate over the budget, Boehner and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich held firm, even as President Bill Clinton applied enormous pressure to end the shutdown.

"It is not a natural disaster. It is an unnatural disaster, born of a cynical political strategy," Boehner said.

Nineteen days into the standoff, Boehner acknowledged that the political tide was turning, but he stuck to his guns.

"This is tough. This is difficult on the members. It's difficult on the American people and certainly difficult on government workers. But the fact is, is that we need to have this conversation with the American people, and we need to make some decisions," he said. "We're here trying to keep our commitment to them — that we would balance the budget in a responsible, reasonable way."

Perhaps the strongest example of Boehner the Rebel was his involvement in a leadership coup that tried to oust Newt Gingrich as speaker. Boehner and a few other top Republicans felt that Gingrich's loud public persona had become a liability for the party. But the coup fell apart. Gingrich remained speaker, and later Boehner was bounced out of the leadership altogether.

This is where the era of Boehner the Compromiser began. In 2001, he took over as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. George W. Bush had just been elected president, and education reform was among his top priorities. Boehner began to work with Democrats on a massive overhaul that would be dubbed No Child Left Behind.

President Bush traveled to Hamilton, Ohio, to sign the bill. "I'm signing this bill here because it's the home of the chairman, John Boehner," he said.

Boehner worked with his Senate counterpart and with Democrats to write and pass the bill — not just any Democrats, but California's Sen. George Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, two of the most liberal members of Congress.

Boehner the Compromiser called No Child Left Behind his proudest achievement in his decades of public service.

Fast forward to the present. Which Boehner, the rebel or the compromiser, will take the speakership?

It's a tough dilemma, says anaylst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Boehner has dropped a few hints that he's willing to work with the president on several issues. But if he wants to compromise, Ornstein says, he'll get into trouble with the more than 80 new Republicans who have just been elected by harshly criticizing President Barack Obama.

"If they didn't do it directly, they were standing by benignly while others were accusing Barack Obama of being a socialist, a communist, a fascist, an illegitimate president, a Muslim, and they have a large group of people in the country, and a lot of new members coming in, who believe this," Ornstein said.

Then again, if Boehner leads with his tough, conservative side, he's likely to spend two years fighting political battles — with a Senate and a White House still controlled by Democrats.

And fighting, Ornstein says, is exactly what the American people are sick of.

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