Boehner, or GOP, Must Bend

Jonathan Weisman, Washington Post, Feb. 12, 2006

As Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) moves to unite his fractious House Republicans, the newly elected House majority leader has another issue to finesse: his own views on some key issues, which have clashed with the stance of much of the Republican Party.

From illegal immigration to sanctions on China to an overhaul of the pension system, Boehner, as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, took ardently pro-business positions that were contrary to those of many in his party. Religious conservatives—examining his voting record—see him as a policymaker driven by small-government economic concerns, not theirs.

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But he also stood by his positions, especially on a tough illegal immigration bill that passed in December with overwhelming Republican support over Boehner’s opposition. One provision in the bill would mandate that every business verify the legality of every employee through the federal terrorism watch list and a database of Social Security numbers. For the bill’s authors, the measure is central to choking off illegal immigrants’ employment opportunities. To business groups and Boehner, it is unworkable.

“It is a huge unfunded mandate on employers,” Boehner said.

He has made his opposition to bills larded with home-district projects proof of his readiness to change the way the Republican Party operates, while acknowledging that a silent majority of the party has no desire to end such “earmarks.”

In a tough election year when some conservatives believe the GOP could lose control of Congress, division at the top could be trouble. “If the emphasis is on the split within the Republican caucus on a whole raft of issues, then he will be helping to bring about defeat,” Paul Weyrich, a veteran conservative activist, said of Boehner.

To be sure, Boehner has sided with his fellow Republicans on the bulk of his votes, but he has shown an independent streak on some issues central to his party’s agenda.

“He is a libertarian, much more so than anybody we’ve ever had in the leadership,” said Weyrich, who favors government activism in some instances, especially on social issues.

Boehner was one of only 17 Republicans who voted against the border security bill. He helped pass a business-friendly revision of the private pension system late last year that included a Boehner-written measure that would allow major investment companies to provide investment advice to employees of companies whose retirement plans offer the advisers’ investment products. That provision—and much of the broader House bill—is ardently opposed by a key Republican, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).

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A clash on some of the policies appears inevitable. Congressional Republicans see an immigration bill as one of the few pieces of legislation they must pass before the November midterm elections. The conflicting House and Senate pension measures must also be resolved this year. And disputes over U.S. policy toward China—always roiling under the surface of GOP politics—can emerge unexpectedly. Just last week, a bipartisan group of senators and House members proposed to reinstate an annual vote on China’s trade status.

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