Reform, Washington Style; How an Eight-Term Congressman with Extensive Ties to K Street Became the New Face of the House Republican Party

Article excerpt

Byline: Holly Bailey and Eleanor Clift

Like any good politician, John Boehner knew how to read his audience. Early last week the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of congressional conservatives, got together for a private audition. They wanted answers from each of the three men who had been jockeying to replace scandal-plagued Tom DeLay as House majority leader: what would they do to appease disgusted voters who see Congress as a nest of sleazy deals and under-the-table cash?

The three candidates delivered their spiels. Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, thought to be in third place, was greeted respectfully. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri--who had been acting leader since DeLay stepped down--was "well received but not electrifying," says one participant who asked for anonymity about the closed meeting. Blunt had publicly boasted that he'd already locked up enough votes to win the race. But some leaders worried Blunt was too close to DeLay and was a poor public face for the party--a view only strengthened by his appearance at the casual sit-down in a starchy suit and tie.

It was Boehner who made the biggest splash. Relaxed in blue Dockers and a red sweater, the good-humored Ohioan looked like an affable Midwestern football coach. He launched into an "impressive" pep talk about change and reform, says the participant. "We have lost sight of our goals, our ideals," Boehner told the group. When GOP members cast their votes a few days later, Boehner won the job.

Now his colleagues expect him to deliver on his promises to clean up the Hill. The problem isn't just the kind of over-the-top corruption and payoffs perfected by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but the more subtle, everyday ways in which moneyed interests keep members in their debt. "It's not unusual for a member to call up and say, 'I'm planning to go to the Capital Grille for dinner. Do you want to come by for a drink and pick up the check?' " says a business lobbyist who doesn't want to be named, for fear of losing access.

Only in Washington could an old pro like Boehner, an eight-term congressman with close ties to Washington's K Street lobbying culture, be seen as the fresh face of reform. Boehner's ever-present George Hamilton tan gives him the look of a man forever coming back from vacation. …