This was not the first week on the job that Speaker John Boehner envisioned.
Rather than cheering his first legislative victory — the repeal of the Democratic health care reform law — the Ohio Republican marked his eighth day by delivering a tearful tribute on the floor to victims of the Arizona shootings. Instead of playing the role of a partisan, Boehner found himself practicing the art of a statesman.
“Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not,” Boehner said Wednesday in floor remarks on the tragedy. “This is a time for the House to lock arms, in prayer for those fallen and wounded, and in resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy. We may not yet have all the answers, but we already have the answer that matters most: that we are Americans, and together we will make it through this. We will have the last word.”
Later, during a closed-door bipartisan prayer service, Boehner told Members: “Our nation mourns for the victims. It yearns for peace. And it thirsts for answers.”
Boehner had been Speaker for just three days when the mass shooting occurred. Within hours, he issued a public statement condemning the attack and — along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — canceled all regular House business for the week. As liberal and conservative outside groups and bloggers pointed fingers, Boehner joined his fellow Members in calling for unity.
Republicans and Democrats alike said Boehner has had a calming influence in a time of crisis.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a former House Democrat who attended Wednesday’s prayer service, gave Boehner high marks for his handling of a difficult situation. She said, “We have to work together ... you’re kind of in a small group here.”
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Boehner has “taken all the right steps.”
Rep. John Kline, a longtime Boehner friend and ally, said Boehner has done a good job leading the chamber in a time of tragedy, though he acknowledged it is probably too early to start assessing his tenure as Speaker.
“It’s very hard to make a measure considering everything that’s happened in this first week except through that lens of how he’s handled that shooting,” the Minnesota Republican said.
Boehner said he began the job clear-eyed, recognizing the responsibility that comes with the highest position in the House.
“I think I was prepared for it, I think my staff was prepared for it and the officers of the House all worked together with us,” said Boehner, who is now in his 11th term.
Boehner noted that the tragedy has afforded Members the opportunity to step away from the partisanship that so often defines what they do.
“While the public sees us usually having debates over policy, what most people don’t see is that Members across the aisle have very strong relationships and ... there’s a great deal of camaraderie amongst the body as a whole,” Boehner said.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.), who ceded the gavel to Boehner last week after four years in the job, went so far as to praise her successor’s handling of the situation in a bipartisan conference call Sunday.
Rep. Mike Capuano said Boehner has handled the situation “pretty well.”
“I think this kind of tragedy, if this isn’t a bipartisan thing, I don’t know what is,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Some of the issues related to it may eventually become partisan, they’ve already started to. I don’t believe, I hope, I don’t believe the Speaker will get involved in that aspect of it.”
And Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) said going forward Members should move to “increase the discussion between the Democrats and the Republicans.”
Still, Republicans don’t believe Boehner — as leader of the GOP — is about to abandon partisanship altogether. Before his swearing-in last Wednesday, Boehner promised to deliver on an agenda that he said the electorate asked for — a repeal of health care reform, deficit reduction and spending cuts.
“The tragedy is being appropriately recognized by halting all legislative business,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “While the tone may be different between the two parties, the Republican agenda will keep moving forward as expected by the voters who elected them to a House majority.”
Rep. John Mica said that at some point soon Republicans will need to get back to the “people’s business.”
“I think we’ll dust ourselves off and everybody will be back to normal as much as we can,” the Florida Republican said, referencing the 1998 shooting of two Capitol Police officers.
“That was quite a shock,” Mica said. “We adjusted accordingly, but the business of the people and life goes on.”
Cantor has yet to announce the schedule for next week, but several Republicans said they expect legislative business will get back on track beginning with the health care repeal.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz said she was not convinced the events of the past weekend would dramatically alter how Members of Congress relate to each other. But she said it should.
“Going forward, we do have a responsibility to make sure that our political rhetoric is one that talks about issues and policies and positions — that we can well disagree on,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “But we certainly don’t want that to incite a demonization of Members of Congress or of government.”
Kathleen Hunter, Daniel Newhauser and John Stanton contributed to this report.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.