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Boehner: Survivor Star

A House leader who had seen his party lose more than 50 seats in two election cycles might expect to get the boot — or at least a major challenge — but House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) has not only emerged unscathed, he has been consolidating his hold on power by hand-picking a new team underneath him.

Members and GOP aides say Boehner’s likely survival has been helped immensely by the lack of major rivals gunning for the job, and also by his instincts in navigating the hand-to-hand business of internecine party politics.

“He’s looking like the master chess player right now,” one House GOP aide said. “He’s running circles around anyone who’s even thinking about it. No. 2, there’s no bench.”

After insurgent Members failed to draft Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to challenge Boehner last week and after Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) chose to run for Whip, they had no one else to rally behind.

“I think everyone is pretty much resigned to the fact that this thing is cooked, and it’s a done deal,” one insurgent Member said. “It’s pretty clear on this that Ryan was the opportunity of someone new and fresh and could win, or Eric Cantor, but Eric is determined to stay at the Whip spot. ... Most of the people I know are resigned to the fact that this is going to happen, and there is nothing to change it now.”

Boehner’s allies say the blame for electoral failure should lie more with President Bush’s historically abysmal poll ratings and the late-breaking economic crisis than anything Boehner did or didn’t do.

Boehner has orchestrated an overhaul of the leadership team underneath him, drafting former rival Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) as Conference chairman instead of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas); throwing his weight behind Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) as the next campaign chairman over Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.); and encouraging and supporting Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) to run for Conference vice chairman to replace Rep. Kay Granger (Texas).

Boehner singled out Pence as a “team player,” perhaps a reference to his toned-down criticism of leadership in the past two years after a boisterous term as chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the 109th Congress. Hensarling, as RSC chairman for the past two years, has been a frequent thorn in leadership’s side and is closer to Cantor than Pence. A GOP source speculated that Boehner didn’t want the new leadership team stacked with Cantor allies.

As of yet, there are no challengers to the Boehner-Cantor-Pence-McMorris Rodgers lineup, with Boehner’s job made all the easier by the decisions by Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) to relinquish their leadership posts. That satisfied some of the demand for change.

Some Republicans think Cantor could still take out Boehner if there is a groundswell from the party’s rank and file.

“The Boehner folks should be careful not to antagonize Cantor because nothing says he can’t shift his focus,” one Republican chief of staff said.

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