Boehner and McConnell: Can they get their chambers to work together?

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell are heading the first GOP-controlled Congress since 2006. Some see the pair as having the most important relationship in Washington in the next two years.

Mark Pynes/
House Speaker John Boehner (l.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meet with the press at the GOP retreat at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.

Look no further than their clothes to glimpse the personality contrasts of Washington’s top Republican “power couple”: House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

At their joint House-Senate GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa., Thursday, Speaker Boehner – son of a bartender and a backslapper who loves golf – was Mr. Casual, dressed in jeans and a navy zip-neck sweater. Leader McConnell – not a golfer, not gregarious, not a big talker – was more formal, sporting an argyle sweater, blue blazer, and tan slacks.

The two couldn’t be more different in tastes and manner. While they are friendly and respect each other, they’re hardly best buds. That doesn’t seem to matter, however, because “they’ve got a great working relationship,” says Rep. Jeff Denham (R) of California.

It’s an opinion shared in- and outside Congress. With this couple, it's all business – and their business now is daunting. Leading the first GOP-controlled Congress since 2006, they face unique challenges in their respective chambers.

No promise that Republicans can govern will ever be fulfilled, and gridlock will not unlock, if these two can’t get their two sides of the Capitol to work with each other, let alone work with the White House.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most important relationship in Washington in the next two years will be the one between Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for the now-demoted Democratic majority leader Harry Reid. “Nothing will get done unless they can get their caucuses on the same page.”

The difficulty of that was evident at the Republicans’ two-day retreat in America’s candy capital this week. House Republicans had just passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Attached amendments block funding for President Obama’s executive action on immigration and effectively end his program to defer deportation of certain children of unauthorized immigrants, known as “DREAMers.”

The bill with its amendments has no chance of passing even the GOP-controlled Senate, because of the threat of a Democrat filibuster, which would take 60 votes to overcome (Republicans have a majority of 54 seats).

At the retreat – the first joint GOP off-site in a decade – neither of the leaders publicly offered specifics on how to resolve the issue. McConnell simply told reporters that the Senate will try to pass the House measure, and “if we’re unable to do that, we’ll see what happens.” Boehner said each chamber will “work its will,” then “try to resolve the difference.”

McConnell, from Kentucky, and Boehner, from Ohio, meet weekly, alternating the sessions in their offices, and they talk more often than that on the phone. Their staffs, too, stay in close touch, with McConnell’s deputy chief of staff, Don Stewart, joking to the National Journal that he has worn a groove in the 30-foot, back-hall walkway that connects the two offices.

The men also share important commonalities: a similar geographic orientation, close ties to the business community, a strong conservatism that has been maligned by the ultras as not conservative enough, a desire to return Congress to “regular order” (more democratic, but also messier), and a philosophy of “no surprises.”

Indeed, Boehner ran the Homeland Security plan by McConnell before announcing it, though, as Mr. Stewart told the National Journal, the two “don’t tell each other how to run” their chambers.

“For the leaders, there’s got to be a no-surprises rule. It’s better to have complete transparency as to what the challenges are,” says John Feehery, former spokesman to Boehner’s GOP predecessor as speaker, Dennis Hastert.

Mr. Feehery recalls Mr. Hastert being blindsided by a Senate deal in 2003 with Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine for a lower tax cut than President Bush had proposed. That was early in the tenure of then-GOP majority leader Bill Frist. The communication lapse was born of inexperience, but it was also typical dealmaking in the Senate, where just one member can stop up the works.

The nature of the Senate – its slower-moving deliberativeness and its 60-vote threshold for overcoming a filibuster – are limitations on the majority leader that House members often forget about. Things can move speedily in the House, where the party in power sets the rules and the speaker can pass legislation with a simple majority.

Mr. Manley, the former Reid spokesman, recalls the early Obama years, when Democrats held both chambers. The speaker, Nancy Pelosi, would update then-majority leader Reid about the three, four, or five appropriations bills she expected to move through the House that week.

“Then she’d go, ‘What about you, Harry?’ and Senator Reid would kind of put his head down on the table and say, ‘Hopefully we’ll get the motion-to-proceed on the defense authorization bill.” 

Boehner has his own challenges, principally a large and inflexible right wing that has caused him trouble since the tea party wave of 2010. Also, House members will expect much more from the GOP-controlled Senate than they got when Democrats were in power, but “they don’t understand the power of 60 votes,” Manley says.

When leaders can get their chambers moving together, however, results can happen. Feehery remembers the effort by Hastert and then-GOP majority leader Trent Lott to coordinate on key areas of economic and national security. It was just after the House impeached President Clinton, when the Republican brand was “really, really terrible,” as Feehery put it.

“We passed a lot of good stuff,” including increased defense spending and some modest budget cuts, he says. The effort gave Republicans an opportunity to work with Mr. Clinton, whose approval rating improved. It also helped pave the way for Mr. Bush.

“By getting stuff done, we actually helped the Republican brand improve. We didn’t do any crazy stuff, either,” says Feehery.

It’s a model not lost on either Boehner or McConnell.

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