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Boehner: From Leadership To 'Backwater' And Back

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Boehner: From Leadership To 'Backwater' And Back

Boehner: From Leadership To 'Backwater' And Back

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It is a day of celebration for Republicans, but this morning, the congressman who is likely to become Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said Republicans are also humbled by the trust voters have placed in them.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): And we recognize this is time for us to roll up our sleeves and go to work on the people's priorities -creating jobs, cutting spending, and reforming the way Congress does its business. It's not just what the American people demanding, it's what they are expecting from us.

SIEGEL: We have more now on Congressman Boehner's rise through the ranks of Congress from NPR's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: John Boehner has outlasted some of the biggest names in the Republican Party's 10-year roller coaster ride through changing leadership, beginning with Newt Gingrich's resignation in 1998.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former House Speaker): There are many avenues for a public life beyond the speakership. I will make that resignation effective some time before mid-June. After much consideration, I have decided not to seek another term of Congress.

CORNISH: Dennis Hastert retired in 2007. Tom DeLay was out as majority leader in 2006. Even though Republicans suffered major losses to Democrats under Boehner's watch in previous elections, he is now poised to take the gavel with a decisive majority.

And he has his work cut out for him, says former GOP Congressman Bob Walker, now a lobbyist.

Mr. Bob Walker (Lobbyist): It is much harder to actually win every day and do the things that are necessary in order to actually put together a public policy agenda and then move it forward than it is to sit on the sides and criticize.

CORNISH: But Walker says Boehner is a survivor precisely because he has taken some hits.

Mr. WALKER: And John has now had that experience both in leadership under Newt Gingrich, then as committee chairman and as minority leader watching the Democrats pursue their agenda under Nancy Pelosi. I mean, I think that gives him a sense of perspective now about how you do public policy.

CORNISH: John Boehner was born in southwestern Ohio in 1949, the second of 12 kids. He worked in his family's restaurant. Later, he did odd jobs to put himself through college. He was still in school when he landed at a plastics company, where he made his fortune.

When Boehner came to Washington in the early '90s, Democrats had ruled the House for nearly 40 years. He won the seat of an Ohio congressman tarnished by a sex scandal. He was among the young lawmakers who made a name for themselves denouncing the old guard.

Rep. BOEHNER: Ladies and gentleman, good afternoon and thanks for coming today. As freshman members of the House from both parties, we're here today to call for change, to call for reform.

CORNISH: Abuses at the House bank and post office made headlines, but even congressional perks like the Capitol barbershops were ripe for attack by Boehner and the other up-and-coming Republicans tagged the Gang of Seven.

The Ohio Republican recounted those early days at a speech before the American Enterprise Institute a few weeks ago.

Rep. BOEHNER: I can remember early on in my career, as a member of the Gang of Seven, when I got long stares from the members, many of them in my own party. Some would just walk the other way; others would be right smack in my face. And I still think I have a permanent bruise at the top of my chest from members giving me this.

CORNISH: When Gingrich became House speaker in 1995, he took Boehner into the inner circle of GOP leaders who drafted the Contract With America. But when the tide turned and Republicans lost seats in the next two elections, Gingrich was gone. And Boehner, already tainted by a mini-scandal over his handing out corporate campaign checks on the House floor, was rejected by the Republican caucus.

He parked himself on the Education Committee with California Democrat George Miller and dug in for the long haul.

Rep. BOEHNER: Now, no one is going to confuse me and George Miller for ideological soul mates. I think most of you get that. But in just a few years, we were able to work together to transform our committee from a backwater panel that nobody wanted to be on, to the center of some of the biggest issues of the day.

CORNISH: One of those issues was the committee's negotiation of the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. It was a high-profile bipartisan moment that's all but a distant memory now that Boehner routinely dismisses Democrats' proposals, often before theyre formally announced.

But it also gives context to the kind of speaker Boehner says he wants to be. For instance, Boehner says committee chairs should have more power to write legislation, a deviation from the top-down approach taken by Gingrich and DeLay.

Rep. BOEHNER: When it comes to the floor, if there is a more open process and members are allowed to participate, guess what? It lets the steam out of the place.

CORNISH: Now that Tea Party activists have flexed their muscles, there could be quite a bit of steam. But in a press conference on Capitol Hill today, Boehner dismissed those who say he could have a tough time holding his caucus together.

Rep. BOEHNER: What unites us as Republicans will be the agenda of the American people. And if were listening to the American people, I don't see any problems incorporating members of the Tea Party along with our party in a quest that's really the same.

CORNISH: John Boehner will get the chance to prove it this winter.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol

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