The Partnership the GOP Can’t Afford to Mess Up

In the majority, the Boehner-McConnell relationship will be tested as never before.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 03:  House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) (L) arrives for a press conference with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) at the U.S. Capitol November 3, 2010 in Washington, DC. Following yesterday's midterm election, House Republicans stand ready to take control of the House of Representatives with Boehner likely becoming the next Speaker of the House.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John Boehner;Mitch McConnell;Haley Barbour
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Daniel Newhauser
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Sarah Mimms and Daniel Newhauser
Jan. 13, 2015, 3:05 p.m.

Speak­er John Boehner and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell have worked to­geth­er be­fore. But they’re about to find out that gov­ern­ing to­geth­er is much harder.

For the first time in the years-long pro­fes­sion­al part­ner­ship between the two GOP lead­ers, Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol both ends of the Cap­it­ol. Wheth­er the party can keep those ma­jor­it­ies de­pends in part on Boehner and Mc­Con­nell’s abil­ity—be­gin­ning with this week’s joint Re­pub­lic­an re­treat in Her­shey, Pa.—to wrangle their very dif­fer­ent blocs of mem­bers in­to agree­ment on everything from en­ergy and taxes to at­tack­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care plan.

If they can’t, Obama and his fel­low Demo­crats can seize con­trol of the agenda.

The two have worked in close con­cert on ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive is­sues, but on the biggest de­bates of the day, Boehner ul­ti­mately had to ne­go­ti­ate with Harry Re­id and the White House. In many ways, the speak­er has been set­ting Mc­Con­nell’s place at that table for nearly a dec­ade.

“Be­fore, it was sort of a free pass for Boehner be­cause he could pass any­thing he wanted, be­cause it wasn’t go­ing to get through the Sen­ate,” a former Mc­Con­nell aide said. “[Now, there’s] go­ing to be much more of a con­ver­sa­tion about what the traffic will bear.”

Boehner, the back­slap­ping, ci­gar­ette-puff­ing Ohioan, and Mc­Con­nell, the un­der­stated, book­ish Ken­tucki­an, could not be more dif­fer­ent in per­son­al­ity. But as lead­ers of the first Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­ity since 2006, the two men are usu­ally in lock­step—per­haps even to a bor­ing de­gree, said some who know them best.

The biggest key to the Boehner-Mc­Con­nell re­la­tion­ship, nu­mer­ous staffers and mem­bers said, is a de­sire to avoid sur­prises. They hold weekly meet­ings, al­tern­at­ing whose of­fice they meet in, and aides say they talk much more fre­quently than that on the phone. When on the Sen­ate side, the chain-smoking Boehner pays Mc­Con­nell the biggest de­fer­en­tial com­pli­ment in his ar­sen­al.

“When the speak­er goes to vis­it the lead­er, the speak­er does not smoke,” said Barry Jack­son, Boehner’s former chief of staff.

As Con­gress is in­creas­ingly defined by out­sized polit­ic­al per­son­al­it­ies—new­er mem­bers who care little about solv­ing prob­lems and a lot about their own am­bi­tion—Boehner and Mc­Con­nell are con­sidered mostly devoid of pub­lic ego, ex­actly where they want to be pro­fes­sion­ally, and with no in­terest in the feuds and back­bit­ing that have marred past lead­ers’ re­la­tion­ships.

“Every­one talks about the pres­id­ent and ‘No Drama Obama.’ But when the two of them are deal­ing with each oth­er, it’s straight busi­ness,” Jack­son said. “They’re pro­fes­sion­al. They’ll joke with each oth­er and share polit­ic­al gos­sip “¦ but their con­ver­sa­tions tend to be really well fo­cused on what needs to get done.”

Wheth­er that col­legi­al­ity can hold up in the face of pres­sures each lead­er faces in his cham­ber re­mains to be seen. Boehner must ap­pease House con­ser­vat­ives who as re­cently as last week tried to strip him of his title. Mc­Con­nell must gov­ern without a fili­buster-proof ma­jor­ity, mean­ing that Demo­crat­ic votes will be more im­port­ant.

An ini­tial test of that dy­nam­ic will come when the House sends the Sen­ate a bill fund­ing the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment loaded with sev­er­al pro­vi­sions tar­get­ing White House im­mig­ra­tion policy. Mc­Con­nell has yet to com­ment on the le­gis­la­tion pub­licly (aides say he’s still dis­cuss­ing the is­sue with his con­fer­ence). But the Sen­ate is not ex­pec­ted to pass the meas­ure as is, and the way the two lead­ers iron out the cham­bers’ dif­fer­ences to keep DHS fun­ded will be in­struct­ive of their re­la­tion­ship mov­ing ahead.

“Ac­tions they have to take com­plic­ate the oth­er’s life, and they know that,” Jack­son said. “The shared kind of cul­ture and men­tal­ity of the in­sti­tu­tion makes it so that when those is­sues arise, it makes them not be ir­rit­ants.”

So, to avoid any con­fu­sion, the two re­main in close con­tact. Don Stew­art, Mc­Con­nell’s deputy chief of staff, said that Boehner ran the DHS plan by Mc­Con­nell be­fore an­noun­cing it, but em­phas­ized that the two “don’t sur­prise each oth­er” and “they don’t tell each oth­er how to run their house.”

Stew­art jokes that he’s worn a groove in that path between Mc­Con­nell’s and Boehner’s of­fices, a 30-foot walk­way that ex­tends be­hind the Strom Thur­mond Room near the Old Sen­ate Cham­ber to Boehner’s al­cove on the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol. The two staffs, he said, are “very close,” a sen­ti­ment that was echoed by cur­rent and former staffers on both sides.

In their meet­ings, Boehner and Mc­Con­nell not only dis­cuss policy and le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion in each cham­ber, they are also keen on keep­ing each oth­er ap­prised of the mood and ten­or of their mem­bers, factors that can have as big an ef­fect on Con­gress as does ac­tu­al le­gis­la­tion.

“They have a good re­la­tion­ship but “¦ it’s a pro­fes­sion­al re­la­tion­ship,” the former Mc­Con­nell aide said. The two don’t sit around over drinks or ci­gars, palling around every week. When they’re to­geth­er, they’re fo­cused. Re­mem­ber, the aide ad­vised, the two have been work­ing on this re­la­tion­ship for nearly a dec­ade.

“You know, they’re very dif­fer­ent people per­son­al­ity-wise. Mitch doesn’t golf, Mitch doesn’t tan. They both like red wine, but I would say that he doesn’t fa­vor it like John Boehner does,” the former aide said.

That is not to say there has nev­er been a strain on the re­la­tion­ship. One former House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aide said they re­spect each oth­er’s turf to such a de­gree that the re­la­tion­ship breaks down only when one or the oth­er can­not de­liv­er on his prom­ises. That happened dur­ing the first fight over rais­ing the debt ceil­ing in 2011, when Mc­Con­nell was count­ing on Boehner to de­liv­er House votes for a two-month ex­ten­sion. Boehner’s ef­forts fell flat when his con­fer­ence turned its back on him.

“That was a rough peri­od for them,” the aide said. “But it won’t be any drama you’ll ever see.

“The one thing for sure is that while they may have some dif­fer­ences, they’re go­ing to deal with them them­selves, and with their top staffers. Mitch, in par­tic­u­lar, al­most de­mands that: ‘We’re not go­ing to work against each oth­er pub­licly.’ That’s one of the things that really grinds his gears, and John re­spects that.”

Al­though they’re hardly buddy-buddy, Boehner and Mc­Con­nell share a deep trust and close­ness that ex­tends down to the staff level. Mike Som­mers, Boehner’s chief of staff, speaks with top Mc­Con­nell aide Shar­on Soder­strom as much as Boehner does to Mc­Con­nell. In fact, oth­er House lead­er­ship aides have in the past been sur­prised and dis­mayed when Soder­strom knows more than they do.

Al­though Boehner’s boy­ish, coun­try-club Re­pub­lic­an ex­ter­i­or could not clash more with Mc­Con­nell’s cal­cu­lated, pro­ced­ure-driv­en char­ac­ter, the two share an abid­ing re­spect for the in­sti­tu­tion of Con­gress. Mc­Con­nell is an ad­mirer of Henry Clay, once a House speak­er, and Boehner and Mc­Con­nell of­ten talk in the same terms about re­turn­ing Con­gress to reg­u­lar or­der.

Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der char­ac­ter­ized Boehner as more of a back-slap­per, while call­ing Mc­Con­nell “a poker play­er.” But the two are both “in­sti­tu­tion­al­ists,” he said.

“I’ve watched the Sen­ate and the House for about 40 years, and they get along about as well as any two Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have in that peri­od of time…. They don’t sur­prise each oth­er, they re­spect each oth­er, and they both are in­ter­ested in get­ting res­ults,” Al­ex­an­der said. “So I think we’re very for­tu­nate that they have that chem­istry.”

Both are stu­dents of “the old school,” as former Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Jon Kyl put it. They have a sim­il­ar vis­ion of the way Con­gress should be—and once was—run that will be key as Mc­Con­nell, and, to a less­er ex­tent, Boehner, work to change the body.

Meet­ings between the two lead­ers dur­ing Kyl’s time in the Sen­ate were brief and ser­i­ous, and it ap­pears that little has changed since he re­turned to Ari­zona. Kyl ar­gued that al­though Boehner is “one of the boys, in a sense,” the speak­er “is pretty much all busi­ness” in his work. “And Mc­Con­nell is pretty much all busi­ness at all times,” Kyl said, “un­less he’s talk­ing about Louis­ville bas­ket­ball.”

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated the title of Don Stew­art, Mc­Con­nell’s deputy chief of staff.

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