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Boehner: Survivor Star

A House leader who had seen his party lose more than 50 seats in two election cycles might expect to get the boot — or at least a major challenge — but House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) has not only emerged unscathed, he has been consolidating his hold on power by hand-picking a new team underneath him.

Members and GOP aides say Boehner’s likely survival has been helped immensely by the lack of major rivals gunning for the job, and also by his instincts in navigating the hand-to-hand business of internecine party politics.

“He’s looking like the master chess player right now,” one House GOP aide said. “He’s running circles around anyone who’s even thinking about it. No. 2, there’s no bench.”

After insurgent Members failed to draft Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to challenge Boehner last week and after Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) chose to run for Whip, they had no one else to rally behind.

“I think everyone is pretty much resigned to the fact that this thing is cooked, and it’s a done deal,” one insurgent Member said. “It’s pretty clear on this that Ryan was the opportunity of someone new and fresh and could win, or Eric Cantor, but Eric is determined to stay at the Whip spot. … Most of the people I know are resigned to the fact that this is going to happen, and there is nothing to change it now.”

Boehner’s allies say the blame for electoral failure should lie more with President Bush’s historically abysmal poll ratings and the late-breaking economic crisis than anything Boehner did or didn’t do.

Boehner has orchestrated an overhaul of the leadership team underneath him, drafting former rival Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) as Conference chairman instead of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas); throwing his weight behind Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) as the next campaign chairman over Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.); and encouraging and supporting Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) to run for Conference vice chairman to replace Rep. Kay Granger (Texas).

Boehner singled out Pence as a “team player,” perhaps a reference to his toned-down criticism of leadership in the past two years after a boisterous term as chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the 109th Congress. Hensarling, as RSC chairman for the past two years, has been a frequent thorn in leadership’s side and is closer to Cantor than Pence. A GOP source speculated that Boehner didn’t want the new leadership team stacked with Cantor allies.

As of yet, there are no challengers to the Boehner-Cantor-Pence-McMorris Rodgers lineup, with Boehner’s job made all the easier by the decisions by Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) to relinquish their leadership posts. That satisfied some of the demand for change.

Some Republicans think Cantor could still take out Boehner if there is a groundswell from the party’s rank and file.

“The Boehner folks should be careful not to antagonize Cantor because nothing says he can’t shift his focus,” one Republican chief of staff said.

A run against Boehner would be risky for Cantor, and becoming leader could also make it harder for him to consider running for statewide office in the future. He’s also young enough — 45 — that he can bide his time until Boehner leaves.

In addition to the Cole-Sessions race, the only other sideshow is the challenge to Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), a longtime Boehner ally, from Rep. Michael Burgess (Texas).

Burgess said he’s picking up support from Members concerned about what appears to be a Boehner-blessed slate.

A lot of Members “legitimately have concerns about buying off on a slate brought to us by the same leadership that, quite frankly, has overseen some serious losses over the last two years,” Burgess said.

But Burgess is rare in his willingness to publicly tweak the Boehner machine, with most only willing to talk as long as their names will not be used.

Although Boehner has clearly focused on the leadership scramble, he also has been looking beyond, signaling a more aggressive stance fighting the Democrats, both in his letter announcing his decision to seek to keep his position and in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

“This election was neither a referendum in favor of the left’s approach to key issues nor a mandate for big government,” Boehner wrote in the Post. “Obama campaigned by masking liberal policies with moderate rhetoric to make his agenda more palatable to voters. Soon he will seek to advance these policies through a Congress that was purchased by liberal special interests such as unions, trial lawyers and radical environmentalists, and he’ll have a fight on his hands when he does so.”

A House GOP leadership aide said the shift in tone shouldn’t be seen as Boehner protecting his right flank in the leadership race, but instead as an understanding that his role will change with Democrats in charge on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The role of Republican leader is going to be very different without the White House,” a House GOP leadership aide said. “The votes matter less, the voice matters more. … If Boehner remains as leader, he, [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell [Ky.] and presumably the next RNC chairman will be the voices of Republicans in Washington, D.C.,” the aide said.

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