'I'm With Boehner'

In May 2001, just months into his first term, President George W. Bush invited House Republicans to the White House to negotiate No Child Left Behind—his top legislative priority at the time. The education reform bill had run into opposition from conservative Republicans, who were worried about the bill's cost and scope, and GOP leaders told the president that he should offer up incentives that could entice more members of his party to support the measure.

Meeting in the Oval Office, House Republican leaders told Bush of one proposal that was sure to win strong party support: a provision that would shift most federal control over schools to the states. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in the meeting, agreed with the leadership and urged Bush to sign on to the proposal, but Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who chaired the House Education Committee strongly disagreed. "That's a deal-killer for Democrats," Boehner argued, reminding Bush of his goal of a bipartisan bill.

According to participants in the meeting, Bush looked around the room. "Anything else?" the president asked. When no one said anything, Bush rose to his feet. "Good," he snapped. "I'm with Boehner."

As House Republicans debated who would succeed Rep. Tom DeLay as majority leader, Bush and his aides were careful not to take sides in the election. But it's no secret that a fair number of White House officials, unofficially at least, were with Boehner. The Ohio lawmaker earned accolades from administration officials for his role in the passage of No Child Left Behind and has long been regarded as a strong and loyal ally to the president.

For White House officials, who rank loyalty among the highest attributes, Boehner is viewed as more congenial and like-minded than DeLay, who maintained a somewhat distanced relationship with Bush over the last five years. At the height of DeLay's troubles, Bush was never an enthusiastic defender of the embattled leader. When DeLay announced last month he would not return to leadership, White House officials signaled no regret, instead describing DeLay as they always had: as a lawmaker who had been an "effective leader."

While Boehner may not be the fresh face of reform that the House GOP has made him out to be, the new majority leader does mark a fresh start for the White House, in that there is little political baggage in the relationship. It doesn't hurt that Boehner has close ties to several current and former members of Team Bush. Barry Jackson, the Ohio congressman's former chief of staff, now works at the White House for Karl Rove. (Jackson's name has come up in the ongoing Jack Abramoff investigation. The Associated Press reports that Jackson, when he was an aide to Boehner, helped plan a 1996 trip to the Northern Mariana Islands organized by Abramoff.) Terry Holt, a lobbyist and former Bush-Cheney campaign aide who remains close to the White House, also worked for Boehner and quietly labored to rally support for his leadership bid. The Ohio lawmaker is also close to Nick Calio, Bush's former top congressional liaison and a White House loyalist who remains influential among senior administration officials.

While Boehner is not a close pal of President Bush—a senior administration official tells NEWSWEEK the two are "friendly"—the new majority leader boasts significant goodwill among White House officials for his role in shepherding No Child Left Behind, still one of the president's most significant legislative accomplishments. Perhaps no other lawmaker worked more closely with Bush on the measure. Boehner has been credited with luring the support of both conservative Republicans—a majority of whom originally opposed the plan—and Democrats.

In December 2000, a few days after the contentious election was decided, Bush named education reform as one of his top legislative issues and invited key lawmakers from both parties to Austin to discuss the issue. Yet Bush staffers didn't invite Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee—a snub that Boehner viewed as politically disastrous. According to the oft-repeated story, Boehner intervened with Bush aides to get Miller on the guest list and, convinced the pair would hit it off, conspired with Sen. Judd Gregg to switch place cards at the luncheon so that Miller would be seated next to Bush. Boehner was right: Bush and Miller became close allies on the legislation.

Now in his second year of a second term, Bush needs significant legislative victories in what could be his last truly effective year in the White House before 2008 presidential politics kick into high gear. And his own party says he needs Democrats to do it. In meetings last fall on the 2006 agenda, some House Republicans warned Bush he would need the help of Democrats to rack up some "attainable goals," such as funding for research into alternative energy. Bush seemed to get the message, judging by some of his overtures to Democrats in the State of the Union address.

Can Boehner help Bush eke out some bipartisan victories as both parties look toward a highly contested midterm election? "I don't know," one House GOP lawmaker, who declined to be named, told NEWSWEEK last week. "[But] he'll have a better shot than Tom DeLay."

Friend or Foe? Who did President Bush have in mind when he attacked the isolationists, protectionists, retreatists and defeatists in his State of the Union last week? According to the White House, it wasn't just Democrats. "This whole notion that we are provoking our problems as opposed to confronting them—there are elements in our own party who say that, like George Will and Pat Buchanan, as well as an increasing element in the Democratic Party," said one senior Bush aide. "It's not necessarily a party issue."

Much of Bush's thinking was shaped as much by the politics of trade as it was by the crisis in Iraq. Bush was especially surprised by the narrow support in the House of Representatives for the Central American Free Trade Agreement last summer. "It was a no-brainer for bipartisan support," the senior aide said. "It wasn't a good sign for what has been bipartisan politics for some time." The free-trade legislation passed by just two votes in the House.

So Bush has been promoting his competitiveness agenda (a combination of high-tech research and better school teaching) while attacking his critics. "In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting—yet it ends in danger and decline," he told members of Congress last week.

Is this a winning issue for the administration? Anecdotally, there looks like a high level of concern about trade, especially among states and cities affected by the closure of manufacturing plants. But recent polling suggests that is a long way from being widespread. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 30 percent think that dealing with global trade is a top priority for Bush and Congress. That's 10 points less than those citing tax simplification as a top priority, and 27 points less than those who think protecting the environment is a top goal for Washington. It's also a two-point decline since last year. Bush will have to work hard to convince voters on either side that free trade is not just good policy but good politics.