An emotional John Boehner’s first move after taking the Speaker’s gavel Wednesday was to hush the whoops and hollers of his elated GOP colleagues by saying, “It’s still just me.”
The Ohio Republican assumed the Speakership without the pomp and circumstance that characterized Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s “marble-ceiling-shattering” ascendance to the job just four years ago.
Also in stark contrast was Boehner’s tone and demeanor. While Boehner spoke soberly about being a temporary occupant of the chair in the “people’s House,” Pelosi accepted her gavel energetically and enthusiastically, hailing the history that she was making by becoming the first female Speaker.
“The American people have humbled us,” Boehner said. “They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker.”
Boehner followed a less direct path to the top than Pelosi. First elected in 1990, Boehner was the architect of his own political resurrection. He spent much of the early part of the last decade out of elected leadership; he lost his slot in Republican leadership in 1998, when then-ally Newt Gingrich (Ga.) fell from the Speakership. He spent eight years in the GOP trenches, rebuilding relationships and his reputation before becoming Majority Leader in early 2006, besting then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), to succeed Tom DeLay (Texas).
In Boehner’s roughly 14-minute speech after he won the gavel Wednesday, he appeared, more than anything else, humbled.
Boehner repeatedly signaled the reform-minded, conservative tea party movement that swept him to power, renewing his vow to make the legislative process more transparent, accountable and constitutionally driven, starting with a rules package that the House adopted Wednesday. He pledged to shrink the size of government — starting with the Congressional budget — cut the size of committees, slice government spending and institute more vigorous oversight of the Obama administration.
“No longer can we fall short,” Boehner said to a packed House, citing a burgeoning federal debt, high unemployment and still-rising health care costs. “No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.”
The 61-year-old lawmaker’s posture was clearly designed to win him points with his right flank and to reinforce an image of being a regular guy who understands middle America.
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.
“I think, frankly, the Speaker is talking about letting the legislative process work and open rules where Members representing their principles, their beliefs, their constituents can bring amendments to the floor, bring their ideas to the floor and take their best shot,” Jordan said. “That’s the way this body was designed to operate.”
Rep. Mike Pence, a tea party favorite and former GOP Conference chairman, lauded Boehner for signaling “an end to business as usual,” both in substance and process.
“We have one chance to demonstrate to the American people that we’re committed to returning our national government to fiscal responsibility, limited government and reform,” the Indiana Republican said.
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.