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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.
By taking up such a narrow issue as Speaker, education advocates maintain that Boehner is using his powerful position to promote something that might otherwise be overlooked. He has waited nearly three months since being sworn in as Speaker to push his pet cause and is using D.C.’s program as a model for broader education reform, observers note.
“He understands that this is a personal priority for him, but it’s not the only priority for the Conference,” said Quinn Gillespie & Associates’ John Feehery, a former Hastert aide. “He’s showing he has the proper perspective by letting Members push other things first, and he’s giving attention to an issue that rarely gets on the front pages.”
Still, Boehner has taken on far broader legislative initiatives in the past. During his time as chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, Boehner was a lead sponsor of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Pension Protection Act of 2006.
The National Education Association has long opposed school vouchers, and dissenting Democrats charge that Boehner should not be pushing his pet cause at a time when the U.S. military is engaged in Libya and Congress has still not figured out how to fund the government past April 8, when the current continuing resolution expires.
Pelosi’s office circulated a release last week blasting Boehner for pushing voucher legislation that “will increase the deficit by $300 million, includes no offsets and is an ideological effort to recreate a program that was ended years ago because it did not work.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) took it a step further. In an interview, she said Boehner has chosen to make his legislative focus an issue that “serves his own personal and ideological concerns.”
“He’s unable to implement it or anything like it nationwide because of wholesale opposition to public funding of private schools, so you can always gang up and bully on the District if there’s something you want and can’t get anywhere else,” she said.