House Speaker John Boehner casts himself as a political throwback

The past 16 years in Congress have been typified by partisanship and procedural stunts. New House Speaker John Boehner promises to return the House to a time when members can 'disagree without being disagreeable.' He will be put to the test, and soon.

Charles Dharapak/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio holds the gavel after receiving it from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Califorina during the first session of the 112th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.

Wielding an outsize gavel, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio Wednesday marked the second chance Republicans have had to run the House in more than a half century.

There was little of the triumphalism that marked the GOP takeover in 1995 – after 42 years in the minority. Instead, Mr. Boehner spoke of humility and the fragility of human life and, less directly, political power.

“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is,” he said.

GOP Speakers Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, collectively, lasted 12 years; Speaker Nancy Pelosi, only four. Those years were marked by some policy triumphs, but also a bitter partisanship that, in Boehner’s words, scarred the House. In the majority, Republican and Democrats moved their agendas by choking off House debate, late night votes, and procedural stunts that became laugh lines on late-night television.

Boehner proposed a different vision for this period of Republican control. “Openness – once a tradition of this institution, but increasingly scarce in recent decades, will be the new standard,” he said. “There were no open rules in the House in the last Congress. In this one, there will be many.”

One of a vanishing breed on Capitol Hill – the institutionalist – Boehner takes procedure seriously. In addition to open rules – meaning that the minority will be able to propose amendments and see them voted on the floor – the GOP rules package voted on the floor today empowers committees and puts more of their work record – votes, texts of amendments – online in a timely way. As Ms. Pelosi before him, Boehner promised members at 24 hours to read the text of a bill before having to vote on it.

“We will not always get it right. We will not always agree on what is right. A great deal of scar tissue has built up on both sides of the aisle. We cannot ignore that, nor should we,” he said.

“My belief has always been, we can disagree without being disagreeable to each other. That’s why it is critical this institution operate in a manner that permits a free exchange of ideas, and resolves our honest differences through a fair debate and a fair vote,” he added.

Boehner's promises face a quick test.

More than half of the 87 freshmen who gave Republicans their majority are aligned with the tea party movement and are committed to deep spending cuts in the current fiscal year. The new Speaker must manage their aspirations and avoid a government shutdown, as early as this spring.

Moreover, the House is moving toward a vote this week to repeal the top domestic achievement of the Obama White House and the last Congress – health-care reform.

Rep Louise Slaughter (D) of New York complained that Republicans were violating their own new rules by bringing the measure to the floor with no hearings, no debate, and no offsets for the $1 trillion-plus that the Congressional Budget Office said the bill would save.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel disagrees. “No one believes that the job-killing health-care law will lower costs, because it won’t,” he said. “That’s why we’ve pledged to repeal it, and replace it with common-sense reforms that will actually work.”

And so it begins.

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