Pelosi Slip Fuels Boehner Surge

Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:55pm

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has used Democratic gaffes to reassert himself inside his fractured Conference over the past month and has used his influence to help two allies win top positions on key committees.

Rank-and-file members say that Boehner’s relentless criticism of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) allegations that the CIA lied to Congress has raised the morale of the often-beleaguered minority.

Those close to Boehner say he is at his best when he is on the attack.

“The issue has allowed Boehner to assume a more aggressive public profile than he’s normally used to, since there is almost zero downside to pressuring Pelosi and really hacking away at her,— said one former GOP leadership aide. “He’s normally much more cautious and wary of being perceived as too aggressive, but he doesn’t have to be with this fight.—

“She’ll screw up again and people will talk about this,— said another Republican strategist.

A House Republican said Boehner’s respectful approach to his criticism has also won him support from Members.

“He doesn’t sound crazy,— the Member said.

Earlier this year, Boehner had moved largely behind the scenes, leaving the spotlight to Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.).

Democrats have dismissed as a partisan distraction Boehner’s repeated attempts to reignite the controversy that began last month when Pelosi told reporters that the CIA repeatedly lied to Congress about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during President George W. Bush’s first term.

But the Minority Leader’s unwillingness to let the issue go has only helped him inside the Republican Conference among some of his toughest critics.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Without a doubt, it’s heartening to see him engage. … [Members are] happy to see that— said one House Republican critic, who requested anonymity.

The Republican, who has previously privately criticized Boehner for being too meek, added that it was good to “see a leader lead.—

Another Boehner critic conceded that Boehner had navigated the controversy well and the drumbeat had rallied rank-and-file members around the Minority Leader. But this source suggested that Pelosi’s statements were inflammatory enough to benefit anyone who decided to engage the issue.

“He’s done better with this than he has on some issues,— the Republican allowed.

Boehner’s office downplayed the leader’s personal gain inside the Conference and said he was fulfilling his job as Minority Leader by holding Pelosi accountable for her remarks.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said national security and intelligence officers “don’t deserve the stain that’s left when the Speaker of the House — the person third in line to be president of the United States — makes wild accusations and fails to back them up.—

Boehner has also flexed his muscles behind the scenes and has used his influence on the Republican Steering Committee to elevate two close allies to ranking member seats over more senior contenders.

As the Minority Leader, he holds five votes on the panel — the most of any member.

Boehner ally Rep. Howard McKeon (Calif.) was named last week to the top Republican spot on the Armed Services Committee, replacing Rep. John McHugh (N.Y.), who stepped down to become Secretary of the Army. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), another Boehner ally, replaced McKeon as ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee.

Boehner has long taken great pains to stock key leadership and committee appointments with loyal allies.

For instance, during last year’s leadership elections he helped push through a ticket made up largely of people loyal to him and publicly endorsed them to discourage less-favored Members from running.

He has also mastered the adage of “keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.—

When Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who had challenged Boehner on earmark reform repeatedly in the 110th Congress, decided to run for Conference chairman in 2008, Boehner asked Pence, a close friend of Hensarling, to seek the position instead. Pence accepted, and Hensarling took his name out of the running out of deference to his colleague.