During almost every series of House votes, while most of his ambitious colleagues elbowed their way through the crowd on the House floor searching for targets to cajole or browbeat, Boehner could be found puffing on his preferred cigarettes, Barclay’s, in what has become known as Smoker’s Alley–the relatively quiet southwest corner of the Speaker’s Lobby, which is the long room that runs the length of the House chamber and also opens onto the Speaker’s offices. And with the chief resident of Smoker’s Alley now leading the House’s majority party, this particular nook of the Capitol looks bound to become the new congressional power base. Its longtime residents–puffers who’ve become Boehner’s pals–are the new super-insiders, and non-smoking members who want to up their chances of getting their earmarks passed may have to learn to light up.

Even without the wafting cigarette and cigar smoke, the Lobby is a throwback to another era. The hall is lined with chandeliers and a collection of fusty antiques– chairs, benches, a desk, something resembling a throne–few of which share origin or style. Along the walls hang the oil portraits of forgotten past speakers of the House, most of them staring out sternly from darkly shadowed backgrounds. The only nods to modernity are the electric lights, the newly-installed air filters, which always whir in the background, dispelling clouds of tobacco smoke, and a portrait of Newt Gingrich. Men aren’t allowed in the lobby without a sports jacket and tie.

During busy votes, Boehner was often here sharing a smoke with two of his closest friends, Reps. Tom Latham of Iowa and Mike Simpson of Idaho. Latham and Simpson formed the core of the smokers’ club, the congressional, grownup version of the crew that used to sneak butts in the high school parking lot. This group has also formed the core of Boehner’s inner circle, which includes Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), who could also often be seen chatting or joking with his colleagues in the alley, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), another frequenter, and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.).

The group had met with Boehner for the past year and a half to discuss his return to leadership, Simpson told me during a recent interview. The original purpose of the discussions was to prepare Boehner to make a run for leader when Hastert decided to retire. But by the end of November, the group began to turn its sights to the position of majority leader. When DeLay resigned from the position after being indicted for criminally conspiring to circumvent Texas campaign-finance legislation at the beginning of this year, members of the group spent hours on the phone telling colleagues about Boehner’s “vision for the conference” and convincing him that he would make a good leader.

Boehner was neither the establishment candidate to replace DeLay (that was Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the Majority whip whom the leadership had picked to replace the ousted Texan on an interim basis) nor the choice of the conservative ideologues and reformers (that was Arizona Rep. John Shadegg). But Boehner used his easygoing demeanor and middle-of-the-conservative-road policy positions to build on an early base of supporters, many of whom knew him from the smoker’s caucus and endorsed him even when it looked as if Blunt would walk away with the race.

“It’s very difficult the way Congress is run now to get to know your colleagues,” says Simpson. But smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby allowed Boehner to form personal bonds with a group of fellow Republicans, something that can be surprisingly difficult these days, when almost every minute of a lawmaker’s workday is scheduled, and most congressmen fly back to their districts on the weekend. The smoking corner of the Speaker’s Lobby gave a group of representatives a relaxed place to get away from what Simpson called the “hectic floor” to smoke, catch up with each other and “shoot the bull” and talk about “just anything going on.” Another regular and Boehner insider, Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.), told me that this kind of intimate time is essential in Congress, where “chasing member-on-member time is like chasing tissues in the wind.”

Boehner has always been more than happy to be associated with smoking, both personally and politically–he was, after all, the man who, in 1995, handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his colleagues on the floor of the House even as Congress was voting on tobacco-related legislation. Some in the Republican caucus make the case that calling Boehner’s informal headquarters “Smoker’s Alley” gives the wrong impression of the place: “If anything,” Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) told me, noting the room’s very visible fireplaces, “call it the fire caucus.”

But most Boehner insiders are perfectly pleased with the atmosphere they find around the new Majority Leader–smoke and all. “Generally people go to the Speaker’s lounge or in the back to unwind and avoid some of the more argumentative [floor] debates,” says McCotter. “Whoever’s out there is out there for the same reason you are; it’s a more laid back group.”

Simpson said that Boehner’s smoking buddies will be his “eyes and ears on the ground” and will help keep him from becoming too isolated in his leadership office from the rank-and-file. But on the other hand, Simpson said, his friendship with Boehner might just as well make it easier for the new leader to say “no” when he asks him for a favor–unless, of course, he’s asking for a light.

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