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National

After 4 Years As House Speaker, Boehner Looks Stronger Than Ever

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

John Boehner's tenure as House speaker has been a bit of a roller coaster. Let's remember, he was elected unanimously by House Republicans to serve as speaker for the first time, in 2011. Two years later, a handful of members of Boehner's own party defected, either voting against him or declining to vote at all. But Boehner held on, and now as his party celebrates a sweeping midterm victory, the Republican speaker looks stronger than ever. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: John Boehner's held the speaker's gavel for nearly four years. But at times, it's looked like members of his caucus were in control. At different points during his time leading the House GOP, a small, but vocal wing of the party has forced him to pull a farm bill from the floor, force a government shutdown over Obamacare and toughen an immigration policy. But now Boehner makes that all sound like history. Here he is laying into President Obama over the president's promise to take executive action on immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself. And he's going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.

SUMMERS: Boehner's warning sets the tone for what's to come in January. Then Boehner will have at his disposal a House Republican majority that's bigger than it's been in decades. How did Boehner get here?

TERRY HOLT: Determination, patience, persistence.

SUMMERS: That's Terry Holt, a former press secretary for Boehner. He says that Boehner's fortunes have gone up and down, but today, Boehner's on top, something he chalks up, in part, to the speaker's style.

HOLT: With John Boehner, what you see is exactly what you get. He's steady and very methodical. He doesn't get too excited, and he doesn't get too down. He doesn't waste words, and he doesn't waste time.

SUMMERS: Time is on Boehner's side now and so is experience. Rich Galen is a Republican consultant who worked for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

RICH GALEN: The thing to remember about John Boehner is, unlike Newt in 1994 and early 1995, is Boehner's been there before. And a lot of Republicans in the House have been there before - there being in the majority.

SUMMERS: On top of that experience, Boehner also has a larger majority. But that doesn't mean his job will necessarily be easier when he gavels in the new Congress. The Republican conference has lost a number of moderates, and it's not yet clear how firm a grip Boehner will be able to keep on his new freshman class. Some of the new members have already shown their ability to generate distracting headlines - things like calling Hillary Clinton the antichrist or saying that being gay is a lifestyle that enslaves people. But Boehner said he can work with the new crop of lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOEHNER: Yes, we have some new members who've made some statements, I'll give you that. But when you look at the vast majority of the new members that are coming in here, they're really solid members.

SUMMERS: And others said the makeup of the class wasn't as important with the historically high majority. Phil English is a Republican who represented Pennsylvania in Congress for seven terms.

PHIL ENGLISH: Speaker Boehner is going to be in a position where he is going to be able to ignore some of the less compromising voices within his own conference.

SUMMERS: He says the so-called hell no wing of the Republican Party isn't getting a slew of new members, but that Boehner still has to be mindful of the party base.

ENGLISH: I think concerns about John Boehner's leadership, which were always overstated, have for the moment been set aside. I think he's going to have to meet the expectations of the Republican base and do it in a manner that allows legislation to get through the Senate and ultimately get to the president's desk.

SUMMERS: But balancing the desires of conservatives and passing legislation that can win 60 votes in the Senate - that's easier said than done. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.