While Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) allies privately debate whether he should mount a challenge to temporary Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in January, Boehner quietly cut a $5,000 check earlier this month to the legal defense fund of the man he could seek to permanently replace, indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The donation from Boehner’s leadership political action committee — which has not yet been publicly disclosed, but was confirmed by two sources — illustrates the delicate balance the Ohioan is trying to strike between supporting his old rival DeLay, backing the current leadership team and figuring out his own plans.
The focus on Boehner’s future has intensified since Sept. 28, when DeLay was indicted and Blunt was named to take the Texan’s leadership post amid talk that a more permanent set of leadership elections would take place in January.
In the ensuing weeks, Boehner has stayed focused on his work as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee and tried to avoid any appearance that he is capitalizing on DeLay’s problems or plotting against Blunt. Avoiding such speculation has been difficult given that Boehner’s desire to return to leadership has been well-known since he was ousted from the GOP Conference chairmanship in 1998.
“I think he’s playing his cards well,” observed a GOP leadership aide. “He’s put his nose to the grindstone doing good committee work. … He’s been waiting for seven years and he’ll pull the trigger at the right moment.”
While Boehner has gone out of his way not to discuss his plans for the future, the question of whether this is “the right moment” is currently the subject of fierce debate among the small group of lawmakers and lobbyists who make up Boehner’s informal cabinet.
One school of thought within that group says that, even if a majority of the Conference believes DeLay is finished and moves to hold an election for Majority Leader next year, it would be best for Boehner to wait for a bigger prize whenever Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) decides to retire.
“The job we want him in isn’t open in January,” said a GOP lawmaker who is close to Boehner. “We want him to be Speaker, not Majority Leader.”
The lawmaker argued that a January leadership battle should be avoided, even if Boehner could win it. “It’s going to be an ugly fight. It’s going to be an ugly year,” the lawmaker said.
But some other members of Boehner’s circle believe that, regardless of their previous designs on the Speakership, the current environment and the prospect of a January contest mean Boehner must accelerate his timetable.
“If there is going to be a race, he’ll run,” said a second Member who speaks to Boehner often.
For his part, Boehner expresses frustration at such speculation and vows that he is “focused on the tremendous amount of work I have on my committee between now and the end of the year.”
The Education panel is currently tasked with finding $5.5 billion in savings through the reconciliation process and is also tackling pension reform, among other issues.
“I’m doing everything I can do to avoid idle chitchat about my future,” Boehner said. “What we do around here is bigger than any one of us. … Helping the current leadership team should be a priority for all of us.”
Before making a decision on January, Boehner and his allies will have to seek the answers to a number of unanswered questions that have become the subject of the House’s current parlor game:
If there is a race for Majority Leader, whom would Hastert support? Would DeLay back Boehner or Blunt, push a third candidate into the race, or stay out of it altogether? Would an explicitly conservative candidate such as Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) get in the race? Could National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) feasibly leave his post in mid-cycle? Would anyone challenge Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor for Whip other than the one announced candidate, Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.)?
In the meantime, Boehner will try to keep his head down as rumors fly about his grand strategy meetings that haven’t actually convened and important conference calls that never existed.
But while he has kept a low profile, Boehner has still taken steps to enrich his colleagues and, perhaps, endear himself a bit more to those conservative lawmakers who lobbied Hastert to give Blunt the Majority Leader post over Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).
On Sept. 30, Boehner signed Citizens Against Government Waste’s “Hurricane No Pork Pledge” and announced that he had done so in a press release.
According to CAGW’s Web site, Boehner was one of just 14 House Members to sign the petition, and he was the only non-RSC member on the list other than recently elected Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio).
And while Boehner has long been an anti-pork advocate, his announcement that he signed the petition caught the attention of the current leadership, regardless of whether it was meant to do so.
“That was a well-timed and unique release,” commented a GOP leadership aide.
While Boehner has acquired the reputation among some members of the Conference as a pragmatic dealmaker rather than a conservative ideologue in the DeLay mold, his allies argue that his voting record — particularly on issues of fiscal discipline — has been consistent.
“The story can be convincingly told that John is even more conservative than some people who call themselves conservative,” said a lobbyist close to Boehner.
As for DeLay, Boehner began making gestures of support for the Texan even before he was indicted, buying a $2,000 table at a dinner saluting DeLay back in May.
Boehner and DeLay have been seen as rivals since Boehner’s fall from leadership in 1998. But one source close to the Ohio lawmaker said that tension existed more on the staff level than on the Member level, and that the DeLay aides who helped oust Boehner from leadership — including, the source said, Ed Buckham, Tony Rudy and Mike Scanlon — have all since left the Hill. And Barry Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff at the time, now serves in the White House under Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
“All those guys are gone,” said the source.
On the financial level, through Sept. 30 Boehner had given $258,000 to GOP candidates in this cycle through his political action committee, Freedom Project, and more than $100,000 to the NRCC from his PAC and his re-election committee.