Boehner Unplugged

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There's a long, well-appointed hallway in the U.S. Capitol that stretches behind the House chamber called the Speaker's Lobby.

The irony is that the Speaker of the House rarely shows up there.

But that changed late Friday night when House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) ambled into the corridor for an unprecedented, free-wheeling, 25-minute bull session with reporters.

Since Tuesday, the House has been entwined in a protracted, near round-the-clock debate to fund the government until September and slash $100 billion in spending. House members scurried to the chamber Friday night for a lengthy batch of votes on wide. But it's tradition for the Speaker of the House to abstain from most votes.

So when Boehner strolled into the Speaker's Lobby during the vote sequence, it was only natural that reporters would descend on the Speaker for a few questions.

At first, Boehner demurred when reporters began peppering him about a potential government shutdown and for an analysis of the process.

"I just came out here to say hello," said the speaker.

Boehner initially deflected the queries and instead began friendly jousting with reporters. It's Boehner's custom to tease journalists about their clothes and hair. And Boehner was in rare form Friday as he ribbed the scribes about why they had loosened their ties or were showing a five-o'clock shadow. He complimented one reporter on her new, chic eyeglasses. Despite the hour, Boehner's tie remained bound in four-in-hand knot and his suit jacket was still buttoned.

But reporters continued to hound Boehner about the interminable debate. And without any of his press aides in sight, the Speaker launched an impromptu riff on the floor debate, the possibility of a government shutdown and how he sees his role as the 61st Speaker of the House.

It was the most frank engagement Boehner has had with reporters since assuming the gavel January 5. It also marked one of the most unhampered conversations the Capitol Hill press corps has had with any speaker in recent memory.

Many reporters wanted to know what Boehner thought of the unique debate process that's dominated the House floor all week on the spending package.

"This was diving off the 50-foot diving board on your first dive," Boehner said, hinting that it was risky to allow such a free-form process. "I've not heard one Democrat or Republican say anything negative about the process."

For the record, there has been plenty of grousing from rank-and-file members about the length of the debate and extraordinary late-night sessions that have dragged on until nearly 4 am this week.

"It's like a week-long special order," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) on Thursday, likening the debate to a series of lengthy speeches given by lawmakers at the end of the day.

Boehner said he thought allowing for a more robust debate not only allows members to have their say, but has a psychological impact when it comes to contentious issues.

"It's like letting steam build up in a tea kettle," said Boehner in a not-so-veiled reference to how his predecessors have managed debate in the House. "It was just watching 20 years of watching leaders tighten down the process, tighten down the process, tighten down the process."

Boehner's had a history of helping to arrange for unique floor discourse. In 1994, Boehner organized a series of "Lincoln-Douglas" debates in the House on a litany of topics. As it turned out, the sessions were more in the style of Oxford debates than Lincoln-Douglas. But the speaker said those repartees gave lawmakers the chance to argue their points in the open.

"There was a lot of pent-up demand," said Boehner.

One reporter asked if Boehner if such a hands-off approach meant he didn't have as much control over rank-and-file members.

"Our job is not to have control over there. It's not about achieving my will," Boehner responded.

About that time, the House floor erupted with cacophony of hoots and hollers. Boehner briefly peered over a reporter's shoulder to try to decipher what was transpiring on the floor.

"It's Friday night," Boehner said, noting it might be a good time for him as Speaker to just stick his head into the chamber, lest the masses get too rowdy.

But the clamor ceased nearly as quickly as it started and Boehner remained to field more questions.

Three of Boehner's floor aides stood nearby. Press staff from the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) hovered in the background.

Someone joked that Boehner's press team wasn't present because the House voted to slash the salaries of his communications staff.

A reporter then asked Boehner about the partial government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 At the time, Boehner was a lieutenant to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the House.

"I had a front-row seat," said Boehner of the shutdowns, noting there are "some similarities" to the dynamic now as Congress and the president face a March 4 deadline to fund government operations.

"The only people rooting for a government shutdown are (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-NV)," said Boehner.

The past two weeks have been somewhat rocky for Boehner and other Republican leaders. The House GOP suffered through the defeats of two bills on the floor, had to yank another piece of legislation from consideration and sustained a case of whip-lash after former-Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY) resigned in what may be the quickest scandal to ever hit Capitol Hill.

Boehner poured gasoline on the fire on Tuesday when he gave a reporter a glib answer to a question about the impact that GOP budget cuts could have on federal jobs.

"So be it," Boehner said.

By Thursday night, about 20 Democrats came to the House floor sporting gigantic, red buttons emblazoned with Boehner's "So be it" mantra.

"I wish someone would give me one," Boehner said with a laugh.

Boehner refused to speculate how long the debate might go. But he told reporters he would stay for the "duration." He also declined to say if he'd be willing to handle future bills in the same fashion as the spending package.

"If we're able to continue to have an open process, it will drive major change into the institution," Boehner said. "We have to have an institution that works."