WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Boehner faced his first dramatic test as speaker of the House of Representatives just three days after he took office, when a gunman wounded a congresswoman in an Arizona shooting rampage.
The Ohio Republican won plaudits from political observers and even some Democrats for his calm, firm response to the challenge of the shooting in Tucson of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday.
Boehner, who became speaker last week after Republican election victories in 2010 and took over at a time of bitter political partisanship, was one of the first members of Congress to condemn the shooting.
He quickly postponed a potentially combative vote in the House of Representatives set for this week on repeal of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform, and on Sunday gave a somber televised statement.
“He said and did the right things. And it isn’t always obvious what to do in those circumstances,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In his first comment on the day of the shooting that left six people dead, Boehner reflected a sense of unity: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.”
Boehner ordered flags on the House side of the Capitol flown at half-staff to honor one of the dead, Democratic congressional aide Gabe Zimmerman, 30, who he said died “in the line of duty.”
Democrats approved of Boehner’s gestures. “I want to thank Speaker Boehner for his steady leadership during the difficult aftermath of this tragedy,” Representative Steny Hoyer, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said.
“This has been a tough time for all of us, and I appreciate his work to consult leadership on both sides of the aisle about how we would move forward this week,” he said.
Political experts, while praising Boehner’s response, cautioned that the key tests lay ahead in the looming battles over spending cuts, deficit reduction, tax policy, immigration and other highly divisive issues.
“In this polarized era, sometimes the Speaker of the House has become the most partisan individual,” Sabato said, pointing to Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich, two of the most contentious speakers in recent years.
It would seem out of character for Boehner to lead “an ideological crusade,” Sabato said.
Political experts point to Boehner’s performance in Congress last month when lawmakers passed s series of major bills as an indication that he is willing to reach agreements with opponents to get legislation passed.
But in the new Congress which started last week, he will be under pressure from conservative Republicans from the Tea Party movement who do not want any compromise with Obama, particularly on economic issues.
Editing by David Storey