There are roughly two hours between House Speaker John Boehner’s home in West Chester Twp. and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s in Louisville, Ky. But those close to both men say between that distance is a lot of common ground.
Stylistically, the two are different. Boehner is jovial, quick with a joke, McConnell is more serious-minded, and a true student of American history. But the relationship they’ve already carved out leaves many in the GOP hopeful that beginning in January, Boehner, 65, and McConnell, 72, will lead a more productive Congress than the nation has seen recent years.
“They are as closely aligned as any majority leader and speaker has been in the last 30 years ideologically and professionally,” said Washington, DC-based GOP consultant John Feehery, who said Boehner and McConnell “understand each other and understand the challenges and I think they’ll also be pretty strategic in how they work through the process.”
Others say that the same pressures that the two men faced before Republicans took the Senate haven’t gone anywhere, and may be exacerbated by the new dynamic. “When push comes to shove, I’m not sure how successful they’ll be,” said D.C.-based Democratic consultant Jim Manley, who adds “as far as I’m concerned, this is the most important relationship in Washington for the next two years.”
Both have been assailed by tea party conservatives for not being conservative enough, though by many standards most men have solid GOP credentials. Both spent brief periods of time in the military but had to leave for health reasons – Boehner because of a bad back, McConnell because of optic neuritis. Both face increasingly rowdy party caucuses – if part of their job as party leaders is herding cats, then it’s safe to say the cats aren’t always thrilled to be herded.
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Between them, they have six decades of legislative experience.
Regardless of whether they’re the type to belly up to the bar together, those close to the men say the two have a history of working together collaboratively.
“They both have considerable experience and they both are realistic and I think they both understand what can get done and what can’t get done,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, whose district is in between both men’s hometown. “Neither one is going to waste a lot of time and energy on things which are just political points that some might want to make, or pie in the sky or things which are never going to happen.”
Chabot’s district covers most of the Cincinnati area and all of Warren County.
The last time two congressional leaders were so geographically close was in 1947, when House Speaker Joseph Martin of Massachusetts and Sen. Wallace White Jr. of Maine led the 80th Congress, which was famously dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress.”
Boehner represents a district that has overwhelmingly elected him for 13 terms and McConnell has been comfortably re-elected statewide after his close upset win in 1984.
In Boehner’s home county, Butler County GOP Executive Chairman Todd Hall said while the fact these two men live close to one another is probably coincidental, “it speaks to the good conservative values” of the region.
The two men “both bring that common sense, fiscally conservative policy that built this nation, and the strong moral values that shape our views,” he said. “Many Ohioans and Kentuckians share this belief system and those values will be reflected in Congress.”
Hall said that McConnell and Boehner are alike in that they “recognize the big picture.”
McConnell and Boehner are “a great one-two combo” for the country, said Scott Jennings, a Louisville founding partner of the public relations and public affairs firm RunSwitch. Jennings was also the Ohio campaign manager for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
“I think what you’re going to see for the region is what we’re going to see for the country: functional government,” he said. “I think they’re going to do historic things in terms of getting Congress functioning.”
However, Butler County Democratic Party Executive Chairwoman Jocelyn Bucaro isn’t as optimistic. She said the values of these two men are not the values of Middle America, and do not share the interest of their constituents.
“The spending package that just passed (the Senate) … is a prime example of what interests they serve and what values they reflect,” she said. “Big business, big agriculture, banks, and wealthy donors were the big winners, while the environment, children and taxpayers were the big losers.”
Tea party challenges
The two have made it clear that they want the public to know their relationship is a collaborative one. On Nov. 5, the morning after Republicans expanded their majority in the House and took control of the Senate, the two published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
“January will bring the opportunity to begin anew. Republicans will return the focus to the issues at the top of your priority list,” they wrote. “Your concerns will be our concerns. That’s our pledge. The skeptics say nothing will be accomplished in the next two years. As elected servants of the people, we will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong.”
But the challenges – even before the new Republicans take office in January – are evident.
In what could be considered foreshadowing, both men dealt with some of the more rebellious elements of their caucuses in December who were irked that the massive $1 trillion spending bill agreed upon by House Republican and Democrat leaders did not rebuke President Barack Obama for his executive actions on immigration.
In the House, that meant that Boehner had to briefly pull the bill from the House floor and send the House into recess after a procedural vote passed narrowly and indicated scant support for the spending measure. In the Senate, it meant Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, holding up the vote via procedural measures – a move which backfired when it enabled Senate Democrats to pass more of Obama’s nominations than it had anticipated being able to pass.
Tom Zawistowski, a tea party leader from Ohio, said that the GOP agreed to vote on a 1,700-page bill that no one had read was “just fundamentally wrong.”
“Our biggest worry is that they haven’t gotten the message that the American people have had enough,” he said. “This game we play – ‘we’re on your side but don’t vote the way you want to’…that’s coming to an end in 2016.”
But Terry Holt, a D.C.-based GOP consultant with close ties to Boehner, said both men strongly believe that Congress should pass bills that do things, and that if they do that, then they’ll be rewarded by American voters supporting even more Republicans.
“Both of these men are grownups,” he said. “They’ve been in Congress long enough to know how it should work and how it has failed to work over the last 10 years or so.”
What the Boehner-McConnell relationship means for southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, however, may be a little more complicated.
Neither man has been known to embrace “pork” – money spent on a particular region or district – and both have been loath to show any preference for their state or region at the expense of other regions.
“On appearance, it would look like a great opportunity, right? But we don’t live in a time of earmarks or anything like that anymore, so I don’t know,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, who admits that “I really don’t know how it will play out.”
“You’d think, well, there should be a sphere of influence, but that remains to be seen,” he said. “And for all I know, they may be saying, ‘we don’t want to give that appearance, either.’”
“I think it certainly benefits the region,” said Chabot, who said it bodes well for the dilapidated Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstates 75 and 71 across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. But I think that both Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell have always looked at what’s in the best interest of the country. I don’t think that they would do anything which other parts of the country ought to think is unfair.”
Newly elected Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, an attorney and former Hamilton County commissioner, is hopeful the two politicians will benefit southwest Ohio and northwestern Kentucky.
Pepper argues the two men can potentially push for federal dollars to benefit big projects, such as the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
“In the end, the part of the job of a congressman and senator is to help the area they’re from, and my hope is that they do that,” Pepper said.
Former Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield, cautions that while both lead caucuses inclined to rebel, the relationship between the two men is likely to be collaborative.
“I think Boehner is the better golfer, but I think they will learn to play a game together that will work,” he said.