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House speaker bangs gavel with sense of humility

By Dan Balz
Washington Post / January 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON — When Newt Gingrich took the gavel as House speaker 16 years ago, he promised to transform America. On his first day Wednesday, the new House speaker, John Boehner, promised more opportunities to amend bills.

That’s a somewhat exaggerated and perhaps misleading description of the differences between Boehner’s and Gingrich’s speeches as the two Republicans took over the leadership of the House. But the contrast is worth noting for what it may mean in the months ahead, as the new House Republican majority prepares to do battle with President Obama.

In all ways, Boehner’s self-introduction to the American people was an exercise in humility and limited expectations. Gingrich’s text ran more than 5,000 words, Boehner’s a little more than 1,300, the speech lasting just 10 minutes.

Gingrich took his audience on a long ramble through US history. Boehner dealt more with the processes of the House and the climate he hopes to establish there. Gingrich offered an expansive interpretation of the mandate of the voters. Boehner said only, “The people voted to end business as usual and today we begin to carry out their instructions.’’

The elections of 1994 and 2010 have often been lumped together as two peas in a pod — a pair of conservative uprisings by antigovernment activists that swept Democrats out of power in the House and swelled the ranks of Republican elected officials around the country.

But Boehner’s approach says everything about the differences between the two men and possibly the lessons the new speaker has absorbed from the tumult of the Gingrich era and his own period in exile.

Boehner is riding a tiger inside his own party, with a freshman class filled with conservatives who made dramatic pledges to cut spending and change Washington, supported by a Tea Party movement whose followers have vowed to hold the new House majority accountable.

Gingrich was the tiger when Republicans took over Congress 16 years ago. He had led the revolution that brought his party to power and stoked the discontent. He waded into the middle of everything.

Boehner (and other Republican leaders) scrambled to stay abreast of the insurgency inside their coalition. As he begins his tenure as speaker, he is moving with deliberate steps to balance competing needs. At the same time, Republicans are mindful that independent voters, who elected a Democratic majority in 2006 and threw them out in 2010, nonetheless have a jaundiced view of the GOP.

On Wednesday, Boehner offered a restrained vision, promising a more open House, smaller committees, and a cut in the congressional budget. He spoke to the chamber as much as to people around the country. “The American people have humbled us,’’ he said. “They have refreshed our memories to just how temporary the privilege of serving is. They’ve reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel.’’

Opening-day speeches are, by custom, conciliatory and filled with words of bipartisanship that quickly give way to partisanship, rancor, and grievances among the minority. The campaign that just ended was hard-fought, ideologically based, deeply partisan, and filled with big promises to reverse the direction charted by President Obama.

Those battles will begin immediately as the new House majority opens debate to repeal Obama’s health care law. It will continue with efforts to meet GOP pledges to cut spending. The health care debate is largely symbolic, given Democratic control of the Senate. Some promises to cut spending may be scaled back by GOP lawmakers. The ideological differences are real, however, and the coming fights could be fierce.

Boehner promised that Republicans would honor the party’s campaign document, the Pledge to America, which laid out specific conservative promises designed to roll back the Obama agenda.

But mindful of the public’s disdain for Washington, he emphasized the need for both parties to debate with civility. He promised to run the House in a manner that encourages those qualities and, maybe, helps to restore public trust and confidence.

There was no bravado from Boehner, a sign he may recognize the dangers of overreaching. As he said when he accepted the gavel from the outgoing speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the chamber erupted in applause: “Thank you all. It’s still just me.’’