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Previous Speakers have used the perch to launch broad signature initiatives, but Speaker John Boehner has taken up the parochial cause of school vouchers for District of Columbia students as his first, and perhaps only, legislative item this year.
The Ohio Republican passed up an opportunity to be the top sponsor of the Republican health care repeal bill, allowing Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to take the lead, while rank-and-file Members have taken charge of the weekly “YouCut” measures to slash specific spending items. The voucher bill, which is likely to come to the House floor Wednesday, is the first bill that has carried Boehner’s name this year.
The first measure introduced by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was a Social Security reform bill, but he ultimately put most of his legislative focus on securing funding to assist the Colombian government fight drug cartels.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Boehner’s immediate predecessor in the Speaker’s chair, made her first measure a broad energy bill, sponsored a stimulus package and later focused on stricter automobile fuel efficiency standards as a signature issue.
Boehner, meanwhile, has chosen to put his political capital behind the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act that affects 1,100 students in Washington, D.C.
Democratic observers have criticized Boehner for pushing such a narrow cause as Speaker, but others suggest the Republican’s commitment speaks to his passion for school reform.
“I think Boehner’s vision is a pretty grand vision for the importance he places on school choice and what it means for education overall,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “The fact this is the only bill he’ll likely sponsor this year really shows the emphasis he places on school choice.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement that the Speaker “has long supported this effective, bipartisan program to help some of the neediest kids in our nation’s capitol get a chance at a quality education.”
Boehner is the former chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee and was an original co-sponsor of legislation in 2003, which was attached to an appropriations bill in 2004, enacting the program that gives $7,500 in scholarships to underprivileged D.C. students for private school tuition.
The devout Catholic, himself the product of a private school education, has worked with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, to rally support, and he even hosted 14 students, parents and advocates of the program during this year’s State of the Union address.
The D.C. voucher bill is being pushed by Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in the Senate. The 2011 bill would increase scholarships to $8,000 for elementary school students and $12,000 for high schoolers.