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The man who becomes speaker of the House today faces a balancing act. Republican John Boehner becomes one of the most powerful people in the nation in the midst of two wars and at a delicate moment for the economic recovery. So he will face an obligation to try to work with President Obama. At the same time, he will be leading Republican lawmakers who disagree with most, if not everything, that President Obama has done.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on what to expect.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Think back to the fall of 2008, after the Democrats took the White House and kept control of Congress. Republican leaders met with President-elect Barack Obama. They discussed plans to work together on bipartisan solutions to the economic crisis. But Mr. Obama reminded the Republicans that the voters had spoken and that elections have consequences.
Well, what a difference two years makes. When Speaker-designate John Boehner met with Mr. Obama after this last election, he said he told the president...
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): I'll always be upfront with him, honest with him and fair. But I've also told the president the American people have spoken, and it's time for Washington to listen.
SEABROOK: Boehner's first priority is to reform the House itself. He's already changed the schedule, giving lawmakers more time in their districts, cut the number of slots on each committee to make them leaner and more focused, and he's told chairmen to cut five percent from committee budgets.
If the American people are making do with less, Boehner says, so should Congress. And he says...
Rep. BOEHNER: Beginning on January 5th, the agenda of the House will be the agenda of the American people. And the people's priorities will be our priorities.
SEABROOK: Boehner says he wants to make the House a kind of outpost for the people's priorities inside the belly of the beast: Washington. This idea fits right in with Republicans' eternal campaign against Washington, and the problem of continuing to style themselves as outsiders after they take control.
Rep. BOEHNER: We're here today to put forth a new governing agenda, built by listening to the American people, that offers a new way forward.
SEABROOK: Last September, as the election neared, Boehner and other Republicans gathered staff and press at a lumber warehouse outside Washington, D.C., to release their Pledge to America, an outline of their priorities going forward. The main points: repeal the health care law, cut taxes and cut government spending.
Rep. BOEHNER: We don't underestimate how difficult this is going to be, given the economic circumstances that we face. But it's our pledge and our commitment to get ourselves on a path to balance the budget and to pay down the debt if we're going to save the future for our kids and grandkids.
SEABROOK: Boehner's mantra - words you'll hear often in the coming year - is: smaller, less costly and more accountable government.
And one more thing you should know about the new House speaker: Boehner grew up in a family with 12 kids. His father owned a bar. And Boehner likes to say...
Rep. BOEHNER: Trust me. All the skills I learned growing up are the skills I need to do my job.
SEABROOK: Boehner says in such a large family, you need to learn to get along, to do things together. And as for his dad's bar? Well, that taught him a lot, too, about hard work and people.
Rep. BOEHNER: I mopped floors. I cleaned dishes. I waited tables. I tended bar. You have to learn to deal with every character that walks in the door.
SEABROOK: Today, there are a lot of new characters walking in the door of the Capitol. More than 80 of them are newly-elected Republicans, many of them with support from the Tea Party Movement.
Republican ranks now span the political range from social moderates to conservative libertarians. So Boehner will have two big challenges - leading the House in a time of divided government and serious economic problems, and perhaps the more difficult test of his leadership: Holding together a broader Republican Party over the next two years.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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