House Minority Leader John A. Boehner has quietly become President Bush’s indispensable confidant on Capitol Hill.
He chats almost daily about the war in Iraq with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or other top administration officials. And Bush has promoted Boehner’s former political adviser, Barry Jackson, to handle many of Karl Rove’s duties.
Also, the Ohio Republican has put his reputation on the line with many GOP lawmakers with his hard-line support of the president’s Iraq policy.
In the weeks ahead, though, that relationship is likely to face its toughest test yet, as the White House tussles with congressional Democrats over troop levels in Iraq. And Boehner holds far more sway with his Republican colleagues than the president does.
“The White House has no credibility with this issue,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), a close Boehner ally and a prominent voice on national security issues.
“Boehner has played the role the White House has been unable to play,” Hoekstra said, referring to the minority leader’s ability to listen to members’ concerns. “The true test will come in the next few months.”
Boehner’s bond with Bush over the war may give the Republican leader more influence with the administration than he previously enjoyed, but it is also fraught with challenges that will test his ability to navigate multiple constituencies.
Many of Boehner’s fellow Republicans grew frustrated with former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whom they perceived as a White House puppet, and are expecting Boehner to be more aggressive in promoting their interests and pushing back against unpopular administration moves.
Boehner, who made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, must balance the president’s embrace of a plan to maintain the “surge’’ of U.S. forces into next year against the concerns of his moderate members who are eager for an accelerated redeployment.
“There is clear progress in Iraq,” Boehner declared during a conference call with reporters after only a few hours on the ground.
The much-anticipated progress report by Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was seen as the starting point for the next phase of debate over the war. But it appears clear that Democrats still do not have the votes to force any deadlines for a quick withdrawal.
As the debate unfolds, Boehner must hold enough of his war-weary moderates for the administration to maintain current troop levels without alienating members in the middle.
“John is a strong leader who has taken a principled stand in support of our troops,” said White House counselor Ed Gillespie. “Under his leadership, the conference understands the consequences of failure and the need to achieve success.”
“We also appreciate his efforts to strengthen the dialogue between the White House and members, which has encouraged members to candidly express their concerns to the president,” Gillespie said in a statement.
Part of that has been developing a closer relationship with Bush and his top staffers. The elevation of Jackson, who had been Rove’s chief deputy, should cement that bond even tighter, members suggest.
“He’s going to have a lot of sway with the president,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), citing Boehner’s staunch support for the war and his relatively tight lip where the administration is concerned. “They know he cares about the policy involved.”
Still, that close allegiance with the president no longer carries much weight with rank-and-file Republicans who are concerned they will be left to answer for Bush’s war policy after he retires from the White House to his Texas ranch.
Republicans will give Boehner some room to negotiate, but many would like to see him create some space between hmself and the administration.
“Members will give him a lot of leniency,” said Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.). “But it doesn’t amount to a blank check.”
The months ahead will be “a real test of [Boehner’s] leadership,” LaHood said. “He knows this is a deciding moment for the party.”
And Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), another Boehner ally who has been working with moderate Republicans to chart a middle path for lawmakers on both sides, said he believed Boehner was “prepared to take a much more independent role.”
Republicans began the year adrift, with a scant strategy to deal with a war that was spiraling out of control — one that many members blame for putting them in the minority.
In that environment, Boehner resumed his role as a fiery supporter of the war, particularly in his dealings with the press — at times making his own members nervous. But, his colleagues say, he is remarkably less vocal behind closed doors.
As leader, Boehner has always taken a patient approach to governing that has had mixed success during his time at the top but worked well this year over a series of votes on the war.
He has been listening to his members on Iraq for more than a year and was able to convince them to hold their judgment on troop levels until Crocker and Petraeus delivered their report.
“John just knows how to build a coalition,” Hoekstra said. “[He] has played it really cool.”
During his first trip to Iraq last summer, Boehner recruited a small group of fellow Republicans to serve as his informal advisers on the war. And since then, he has met frequently with the group, including Hoekstra, Saxton and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Adam Putnam and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of Florida.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has also held numerous listening sessions with GOP colleagues whose support for the war has wavered.
Just last week, he told about 20 moderate Republicans to withhold judgment on the war until they had some time to digest the Petraeus-Crocker assessment.
“Our members have stayed strongly united,” Blunt said. “They’ve shown a lot of leadership and patience to wait for the report.”
Many Republicans suggest the Democrats overplayed their hand earlier this year by calling repeated votes on a date certain for withdrawal from Iraq.
Those hardball tactics forced both sides to vote overwhelmingly with their leaders, giving Boehner and other GOP leaders a pass by politicizing the issue in such a way that rank-and-file Republicans were forced to vote in support of the president.
That dynamic was expected to shift after this week’s Petraeus-Crocker briefing, and one moderate, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), has already announced his intentions to back a withdrawal.
Moderates on both sides of the aisle are searching for workable solutions that other members in the middle can support, English and others say.
“It’s going to take rank-and-file members working together,” English said, adding that the stakes are much higher for Democrats in the majority.
“They are going to have to have the courage to swim against the stream.”