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11.02.10

Capitol Hill's New Ruling Class

Sayonara, Nancy Pelosi. It’s John Boehner’s House now. Lloyd Grove on his relations with the ‘Young Guns,’ his dislike of Hill rags—and his hyperambitious teammates in the new regime.

There’s a new sheriff in town—or actually a bunch of them. With the Democratic majority in the House vanquished for the next two years, at least, Republicans will be running the committees, making the rules and calling the shots. Will they overstep and abuse their mandate, turning themselves into a perfect foil for a resurgent Barack Obama? Or will they decide to sit down with the Democratic president and practice the rarely employed art of compromise?

Herewith, some thumbnail sketches of the Republicans now in charge:

JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER

“I’m just a regular guy with a big job,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, the man expected to become the next Speaker. “Eleven brothers and sisters. My dad worked in a bar. I don’t belong here, but guess what? I’m kinda made to do what I’m doing.”

He made those comments months ago, long before Tuesday’s Republican triumph was a glimmer in his political imagination. But the interview offered an intriguing peek at what a Boehner speakership might look like. The perpetually tanned Ohio congressman was lounging in his Capitol suite, smoking a cigarette and telling me about his leadership style.

“We’ve got a lot of good talent, and I’ve worked with all of them in various capacities over the last six to 10 years.” Boehner said. “My job as the leader is to get them ready to take my job and to lead our party.”

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Among the pretenders to throne are House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, expected to become Majority Leader, and Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, who’s in line to move up to Majority Whip. After the 2006 midterm election, in which angry voters tossed Republicans from the driver’s seat, Cantor and McCarthy, along with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, founded a group whose goal was to recruit aggressive, attractive candidates and win back the majority. Although they were all middle-aged, they called themselves “The Young Guns.”

“It’s really rather insulting,” said Boehner with a smirk. He was first elected in 1990, and will celebrate his 61st birthday in two weeks. “I feel like I just got here. They haven’t been here quite as long as me, but I’m not washed up and ready to be put out to pasture, I’m sorry.”

“It’s really rather insulting,” said Boehner of the ‘Young Guns.’ “I’m not washed up and ready to be put out to pasture, I’m sorry.”

Boehner insisted that despite rumors of occasional friction between himself and Cantor, “we don’t have any bickering in our leadership. We don’t have this backbiting and nonsense that goes on because I won’t put up with it…You’ve got these Hill rags that have editors who are always trying to drive a story between the leaders. It’s really comical, because Eric was just here the other night and we were chuckling about all these stories. They’re going to happen. He and I have a very close relationship.”

During the fractious reign of Speaker Newt Gingrich, when Boehner served as conference chairman, he endured criticism from Republican back-benchers who claimed he was too moderate and accommodating. After Republicans did poorly in the 1998 midterm election, Boehner lost his chairmanship. “You need trust, openness, cooperation and teamwork,” Boehner said. “If you’re not in the room and somebody gets left out when the decision gets made, it just raises doubts and all of a sudden you have cracks. I’ve been there, done that in the mid-1990’s, and I’m just not going to have it. I know how destructive it can be.”

It is, in any case, likely that Boehner will be the un-Gingrich—whose loquacious speakership was marked by top-down leadership that prompted a revolt. It was Boehner’s famed comment, “Tell Newt to Shut Up,” that was the title of a book about Gingrich’s rule. “It wasn’t a quote from me—it was what members told me nonstop and frankly what the public told me. I’m the guy who had to go to Mr. Gingrich and say, ‘Newt, there’s a book coming out, and there’s a title to this book.’ And I had to tell him what it was. That was one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do in my 18 years here.”

ERIC CANTOR, MAJORITY LEADER

Hard-charging, ambitious and entrepreneurial, the presumptive new House majority leader has spent his years as Republican whip creating his own power center, with his own agenda, independent of Boehner’s operation. While the two have managed to keep their occasional disagreements under wraps, their competitive staffs haven’t done much to hide their mutual aversion.

At 47, the five-term congressman from Richmond, Va., where his well-to-do family has a successful real estate business, is the only Jewish Republican in Congress and often mentioned for higher office—if not the presidency, then certainly the speakership. That’s a position he sometimes seemed to be angling for in recent years. But in an interview last February with The Daily Beast, Cantor declared unequivocally: “I’m supporting John Boehner for Speaker.”

Razor thin, wearing spectacles that give him a little bit of a Clark Kent look, Cantor is a relentless fundraiser—having dispensed hundreds of thousands of dollars to grateful colleagues and Republican challengers during this election cycle alone—and a high-metabolism multi-tasker. He is also a combat-ready partisan who earned the nickname “Dr. No” for his staunch opposition to President Obama’s policies.

“I have said from the beginning of last year that we can take the majority back,” Cantor told The Daily Beast eight months ago. “I believe that the American people want a check and balance to the one-party rule in Washington that has taken an agenda and steered it so far to the left and outside the mainstream.”

KEVIN MCCARTHY, WHIP

When the Republican bows are taken for Tuesday’s victory, McCarthy will be front and center. As a founder of The Young Guns, he was top recruiter and a key strategist for GOP challengers around the country. And as Eric Cantor’s handpicked chief deputy whip, the two-term Bakersfield, Ca., congressman has quickly become one of the more influential and best-liked members of the House. On a typical night in Washington, McCarthy can be found treating a dozen colleagues to dinner at a local steak house from his special political count, making friends and forging bonds that will inevitably help him up the leadership ladder.

Even McCarthy’s victim, Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, finds him likeable. "We obviously disagree strongly on politics," Van Hollen told The Daily Beast in February, "but he's a good guy. We talk from time to time. We've gotten together for lunch."

A natural pol, the 45-year-old McCarthy was a congressional staffer, running the Bakersfield district office of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas before winning a seat in the California Assembly and promptly being chosen that body's Republican leader. In the disastrous midterm elections of 2006, when the Dems ended 12 years of GOP rule, McCarthy was one of only 13 incoming Republican freshmen—the lowest number in nearly a century. In 2008, The Year of Barack Obama, when the House Republicans lost an additional 21 seats, McCarthy won his second term unopposed. McCarthy is shambling and sunny, his shirttails as often as not hanging out over his suit pants. He exudes the enthusiasm of an overgrown kid and has a companionable manner that almost, but not quite, hides the fact that he is forever calculating his next three moves in the chess game of life. "He is," said political prognosticator Charlie Cook, "gregarious and cunning."

OTHER LEADERSHIP MEMBERS

Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who at one point was reportedly considering opposing McCarthy for Majority Whip, is expected to remain for his second term as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee—traditionally a two-term commitment. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference—the party’s policy and messaging arm in the House—must decide he wants to keep that job or explore running for national office. If Pence steps down, Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, Texas’ Jeb Hensarling and Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the current conference vice chair, are all potential candidates.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.