Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are facing more pressure than ever to unify their Conferences against Congressional Democrats and the White House on fiscal responsibility and spending priorities.
The two leaders rarely differ on policy. Still, their relationship will be put to the test in the 112th Congress now that Republicans control the House and President Barack Obama has signaled a shift to the center and a fresh focus on fiscal discipline. Both Boehner and McConnell will need to embrace a new level of coordination as they look to convince their diverse caucuses to follow their lead.
Boehner has wasted little time trying to frame his party’s message on spending. The Ohio Republican pressed for a joint House-Senate GOP strategy on the subject the day after he became Speaker, meeting on Jan. 6 at the Library of Congress with Senate Republicans. His message: Consider the upcoming battles on funding the government and the debt limit as one big partisan fight over spending. Senate Republicans, who had already been heading that way, responded favorably.
“I think what we’re united on is that we want to take serious action to reduce spending and reduce the debt,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a close ally of McConnell. “In this case, it’s pretty simple.”
Several Republicans said they are looking to McConnell and Boehner to plot the party’s strategy to combat Obama and the Democrats.
Of Boehner, Sen. Richard Burr, a former House Member, said, “John has the opportunity to lead us out of what is the greatest fiscal potential crisis this country’s ever seen and I think he’s capable of doing it, and it can only be done with the coordination between the House and the Senate.”
The North Carolina Republican described Boehner and McConnell’s relationship as “probably the closest” between House and Senate leaders during his political career.
“I think it will continue at that base, if not grow further given the divided government,” Burr said.
“I think Mitch and John have shown over the last several years that they work very well together, and I expect that relationship just to get stronger now that John’s going to have some real power to get something done over on the House side,” added Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who also served with Boehner in the House.
Boehner and McConnell have had success with cross-Dome coordination in the past. In February, one month before the health care bill was passed, staff from the two leaders’ offices met behind closed doors to figure out how to approach Obama’s White House health care summit. Republicans were worried that if they mishandled the televised meeting, they would lose the public relations war over the overhaul.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that Boehner’s and McConnell’s communications, policy and floor operations are in constant contact to “ensure that things move as smoothly as possible on both sides of the Capitol Dome.”
“In the weeks and months ahead, we are going to have a heck of a fight with Washington Democrats who are addicted to more wasteful ‘stimulus’ spending,” Steel said in a statement. “House and Senate Republicans will stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, and with the American people, in favor of cutting spending to help create jobs.”
The two leaders meet face to face every other week, but their aides meet every Friday in Boehner’s office.
The sessions largely focus on the week ahead, but aides also try to identify upcoming, political trouble spots, according to one senior Senate Republican leadership aide who attends.
“They each understand the other has a responsibility to reflect the concerns and viewpoints of his own caucus,” the aide said of Boehner and McConnell. “The aim is to make sure the messages match up as much as possible, but there’s also a recognition that sometimes you reflect your caucus’s unique viewpoint.”
In many ways, Boehner and McConnell couldn’t be more different. Boehner is characterized by Republican lobbyists as loving the “art of the schmooze” and is known for holding court at the Capitol Hill Club with a glass of wine.
McConnell is not known to have many outside interests: He’s all about politics and sports, particularly anything having to do with the University of Louisville. More reserved and cautious than Boehner, McConnell is more likely to dine out at La Loma, among his favorite Hill haunts, but probably only in the company of his wife rather than with a regular group of social companions.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, a fellow Kentucky Republican, said McConnell and Boehner “certainly” are different, but he said they have a solid partnership.
“Certainly they are different personalities, but both of them are very effective, I think,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield said that rank-and-file Members are taking their cues from the top and have recently started coordinating more regularly across the Dome.
“We really are trying to make an effort to increase our dealing with Senators,” Whitfield said.
House Members and Senators sometimes have trouble communicating and coordinating; with different rules and procedures, the chambers have a tendency to operate independently.
But Republicans say McConnell and Boehner work together as well as any leadership team. Playing to their advantage: Both became leaders of their respective Conferences at the same time — during a period when the GOP was at its lowest point in decades — and neither aspires to any higher office (other than that McConnell hopes to become the Senate Majority Leader in 2013).
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said he believes McConnell and Boehner both want to see each other succeed. “I think what both our leaders are doing is effectively talking with each other about the possibilities about what they can do, and I think Speaker Boehner is quite blunt in saying he is going to let the House work its will,” Sessions said.
Still, GOP success over the next two years will require more than a strong Boehner and McConnell relationship.
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) noted that how Boehner works with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama could prove even more critical.
“Their relationship is important, but there are a lot of variables in the divided branches,” McCotter said.