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GOP turns to reformer in House

Seeking distance from DeLay, representatives tap John Boehner as the new majority leader. He promises inclusiveness.

By WES ALLISON
Published February 3, 2006


WASHINGTON - Hoping to show America they've made a clean break with Tom DeLay and his cloud of corruption scandals, House Republicans chose a seasoned dealmaker and self-styled reformer as their majority leader on Thursday.

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio upset the favorite, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, to replace DeLay as second-in-command, rallying conservatives concerned about federal spending and moderates who said Blunt's ties to DeLay were just too strong.

And, for good measure, Boehner and DeLay aren't even friends.

The 122-109 vote gave Boehner, 56, a rare second chance at leadership and rewarded what members describe as easy-going style and a commitment to cutting spending. He brags that he has never funneled a dime of federal money to his southwest Ohio district.

"I think what you're going to see us do is rededicate ourselves to dealing with issues," Boehner said after the election, "big issues that the American people expect us to deal with, in terms of trying to improve their incomes, their prospects for jobs, and to provide better security."

DeLay, of Texas, had been majority leader since 2003, and his aggressive style set the tone for House Republicans. Most of the members from Florida had backed Blunt, whom they saw as a proven leader who would continue the electoral and legislative successes of the DeLay years.

The other candidate was John Shadegg of Arizona, who also ran as a reformer and who counted many of the House's most zealous social and fiscal conservatives on his side.

When Shadegg withdrew after a first, inconclusive round of voting that had favored Blunt, most of his supporters flocked to Boehner, including Rep. Connie Mack of Fort Myers. He and others cited Boehner's pledge to cut spending and to shine light on the way hometown goodies and rewards for major contributors are quietly tucked into spending bills.

"Earmarks," as pork is called here, have emerged as a major irritation for many members. So has the inability of DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to control spending and cut more taxes.

"We've been crying out for this," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "Boehner has a reputation on his committee, and as a member of the leadership team before, as having more of a vision. A lot of us think that we've been sort of drifting, just reacting."

Blunt, a former college president from Missouri, will remain the majority whip under Boehner. Just as their supporters closed ranks after the vote Thursday afternoon, Blunt was gracious about his defeat, promising to work with Boehner and declaring he and Boehner are pals.

Boehner is a making a rare comeback. He was elected in 1990 and quickly made a name for himself as a reformer, pushing to publicize names of members who had overdrawn their House banking accounts. He joined former Speaker Newt Gingrich's leadership team after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House, but was ousted during a minor GOP revolt in 1998.

In 2001 he became chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. In that post, he developed a reputation as a savvy negotiator, and he shepherded President Bush's landmark education bill, No Child Left Behind, through Congress.

Where DeLay was the Hammer, known for twisting arms to win votes, Boehner is seen as a dealmaker with a gentler touch. Where DeLay was fiercely partisan, Boehner has compromised with Democrats to pass legislation.

During the three-week campaign, Boehner also promised to be more inclusive in making policy, which resounded with members who had become increasingly frustrated at being cut out of decisions by DeLay.

Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., who campaigned for Boehner, said the issue gained ground as the leadership closed ranks to defend DeLay from charges of illicit fund-raising and questions about his close relationship with Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist recently indicted in a federal corruption probe.

"When the questions about Mr. DeLay came up, the leadership circle got smaller, because Mr. Delay was very involved in defending himself," she said.

"The point (Boehner) made about expanding the opportunity for members to be involved became more important. ... Many more members thought it was difficult to be involved."

She and Mack said they believe Boehner will make good on his word to change that. "I think he will be open to input and to letting the membership help more in crafting policy, which will be refreshing," Mack said.

Blunt was DeLay's protege, and some members worried that DeLay's troubles would rub off on them in November elections. Boehner, by contrast, has long feuded with DeLay over leadership styles.

But in many ways, the two aren't that different.

Like DeLay, whose K Street Project forced Washington lobbying firms to hire Republicans and donate to Republican candidates, Boehner also has strong ties to lobbyists. More than 20 former staffers now work for K Street firms, congressional aides said.

Like DeLay, Boehner is a prodigious fund-raiser who has used his contacts with corporations and lobbyists to help grow the Republican majority. His political action committee, the Freedom Project PAC, raised $1.5-million in the last election and gave more than $720,000 to GOP candidates.

And like DeLay, he has drawn fire for the way he disbursed fundraising dollars. In 1996, Boehner passed out $500 campaign checks from a tobacco company to members - on the House floor.

Grover Norquist, a powerful conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, has worked closely with Boehner for years.

"It's not a knee-jerk, get-me-something-different vote. I think it has the effect of signaling "Hey, there's a change,"' said Norquist, who was DeLay's partner in the K Street Project. "Obviously, voting for Blunt would have been more of a status quo vote," but "this wasn't Boehner vs. Blunt. This was Boehner vs. the ghost of DeLay."

JOHN A. BOEHNER

AGE-BIRTH DATE: 56; Nov. 17, 1949, in Cincinnati.

EDUCATION: B.S. in business, Xavier University, 1977.

EXPERIENCE: U.S. House, 1991-present; Ohio Legislature, 1984-90; trustee, Union Township, 1982-84.

FAMILY: Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) and his wife, Debbie, have two daughters - Lindsay and Tricia.

NOTABLE: Brags that he has never funneled a dime of federal money to his southwest Ohio district.