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House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during the opening day of the 113th Congress.

Stephen Crowley, New York Times

Boehner keeps speaker's gavel, but wields less power

  • Article by: PAUL KANE
  • Washington Post
  • January 3, 2013 - 8:38 PM

WASHINGTON - John Boehner was narrowly reelected as speaker of the House on Thursday, giving him another chance to lead the chamber -- a task that has been difficult for him over the past two years.

For Boehner, 63, it may only get tougher from here. After struggling to maintain a grip on his fractious caucus for the past two years, Boehner -- who won the unanimous backing of his party when he was first elected speaker -- suffered the indignity of 12 defections on the opening day of the 113th Congress. Nine voted for other people; two remained silent, and one simply declared, "Present."

For Boehner, it was a warning shot from conservatives, a reminder that his power is greatly diminished. His Republican ranks are thinner, and many of those who retired or were defeated are moderates who ordinarily backed him.

Boehner needed 214 votes. He won 220. It was the closest any speaker has come to not securing a first-ballot victory since Newt Gingrich's reelection in 1997, after an ethics admonishment. In 1999, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was elected with 220 votes, but Republicans held just 222 seats then. Hastert had no votes of opposition. In 1997, Gingrich received 216 votes, with nine votes of opposition from within the conference. Every other speaker since the Eisenhower administration has won with more than 225 votes.

Although he lost some support, no one formally rose to challenge him. While he is personally well-liked, his good-natured demeanor can sometimes work against him. As one Democrat said, Republicans like him but they do not fear him. The most difficult task for any speaker is to keep his party in line. "It's a little bit like being the head caretaker of the cemetery," said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. "There are a lot of people under you, but nobody listens."

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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