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Boehner Shows Humility as He Rises to the Top

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner walks down the aisle of the House floor on his way to take the gavel from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday.

But Boehner, who won unanimous support of the chamber’s Republicans, also made a promise to Democrats, vowing that they “will always have the right to a robust debate in open process” and to make their case for their alternatives.

But with Republicans intending to block amendments to the health care repeal bill that they plan to bring to the floor Friday, Democrats are wary and want to see the new Speaker back up his words.

“I was glad to hear the words,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), a vice chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. “At this point, I reserve judgment until I see the actions backing up the words. ... We are going to hold the Republicans accountable. While we appreciate the verbal gestures and flourishes, we’re going to hold them accountable for their actions and not their words.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, Pelosi’s other steering vice chairman, said that while he was “really appreciative” of Boehner’s overtures to Democrats, he is skeptical, particularly given the pressures that the Speaker will face appeasing his conservative Conference.

“I know he’s going to have a tougher time with his own caucus,” the Texas Democrat said. “But, at least today, he reached out.”

Unlike Republicans — all of whom voted for Boehner — Democrats were fractured in their vote for Speaker, with 19 registering protest votes against Pelosi by publicly supporting another candidate during Wednesday’s floor vote. Moderate Rep. Heath Shuler received 11 of the votes. The North Carolina Democrat announced in November that he would challenge Pelosi on the floor after first taking her on in a secret ballot election for Minority Leader and winning 43 votes.

But Republicans acknowledge that their united front on display Wednesday will be tested.

“We’ll keep strong numbers, I suspect, but unanimity is not the purpose,” Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) said.“There will always be differences in the caucus. We are elected to represent our districts and people in our state so there are going to be some differences.”

Rep. Greg Walden, a longtime Boehner ally who led the GOP transition team, also said he doesn’t expect the Republican Conference to move in complete lock step as Congress begins to govern. But the Oregon lawmaker stressed that Boehner was the right person to try to unify Members in the new majority.

“He’s a terrific leader with the right approach for how this House should operate in the future for the benefit of the American people,” Walden said.

Boehner will have challenges, including trying to align Members on an upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling. Kline said the goal for the House should be, as Boehner articulated, to move away from back-room deals toward an open debate.

“We want Members on both sides of the aisle to stand up there to offer their solution, their amendments, their recommendations, have the debate and then vote,” Kline said.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the new Republican Study Committee chairman, said letting the legislative process work is of the utmost importance.

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