Boehner Stepping Down as House Speaker
House Speaker John Boehner announced Friday he will give up both his speakership and his seat in Congress at the end of October, news that took the political world by surprise, including Boehner's fellow Republicans.
Boehner, who has served in the lower chamber for more than two decades, became speaker in 2011 and served through a period of deep division and turmoil within Congress and within his own conference. His announcement comes amid one of the most grueling fights he has led, a battle to prevent a government shutdown threatened by conservative lawmakers’ attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding.
Boehner’s retirement announcement coincides with his support of a plan to pass a “clean” continuing resolution that doesn’t defund the controversial organization. The CR, which would temporarily fund the government, will likely pass the Senate early next week before coming to the House, and would prevent the shutdown. Boehner faced a possible insurrection from the more conservative House members for pursuing this strategy, but he preempted that by announcing his intention to step down.
“My mission every day is to fight for a smaller, less costly, and more accountable government,” Boehner said in a statement. “Over the last five years, our majority has advanced conservative reforms that will help our children and their children. I am proud of what we have accomplished.”
Boehner, at a press conference shortly after his announcement, said he had originally planned to step down at the end of last year, but former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in the Republican primary to Rep. Dave Brat changed his calculus. He said he then planned to serve this year and announce his retirement on his birthday, Nov. 17, but decided that the current battle surrounding his leadership would do “irreparable harm to the institution” of Congress.
So Friday morning, after the emotion of meeting Pope Francis on Thursday, Boehner woke up, went to Starbucks, and then to Pete’s Diner near Capitol Hill. “I got home and thought, ‘Yep, I think today’s the day,’” he said, joking that when he told his wife, “She said, ‘Good!’”
The news, delivered by Boehner to a meeting of the Republican caucus early Friday morning, sent shock waves through the Capitol. Most members, even those closest and most loyal to Boehner, said the announcement caught them off guard.
“They were surprised. It was like being kicked in the stomach and people are very emotional,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
Cramer said that at the end of Boehner’s speech to members, the speaker recited the prayer of St. Francis by heart. Cramer called it an emotional moment for everyone present.
Word of the impending departure elicited joy in factions of the GOP that have been calling for new leadership. Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential candidate, spoke about Boehner’s retirement at the Values Voters Summit Friday morning, and the announcement was met with a deafening cheer from the audience.
President Obama, at a joint press conference with Chinese leader Xi Jingping, said the announcement took him by surprise. He praised Boehner as “a good man. A patriot. He cares deeply about the House, an institution he’s served for a long time.” Obama noted that although he and the speaker have had many disagreements, Boehner “always conducted himself with courtesy and civility with me.”
The announcement comes less than 24 hours after what now appears to be the pinnacle of Boehner’s speakership: the address by Pope Francis to a joint meeting of Congress.
A devout Catholic, Boehner had been trying for more than two decades to have a pope to come to Capitol Hill, and fulfilling that goal Thursday was an emotional and deeply meaningful moment for the Ohio lawmaker.
Rep. Greg Walden, a Boehner ally, highlighted what an important moment the pope’s visit was.
“I don’t know what he and the pope talked about,” Walden said. “I don’t know if this was a message from God, but I wish he had sent a different message myself.”
Boehner insisted that this decision wasn’t a result of the pope’s visit to Congress, but he did reveal a private moment shared with the pontiff that meant a great deal to him. As the two exited the building, they were alone briefly. The pope touched his arm, Boehner said, and complimented him on his work on the behalf of children and for education.
“And the pope puts his arm around me and pulls me to him and says, ‘Please pray for me,’” Boehner related. “Well, who am I to pray for the pope? But I did.”
The departure leaves a chasm as House Republicans figure out over the next month how to move forward. Many predict that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has widespread support within different factions of the conference, is the likeliest successor to Boehner.
“As our country has weathered difficult times at home and abroad, John has acted as a true statesman, always moving forward with the best interests of the American people close to his heart,” McCarthy said in a statement. “He will be missed because there is simply no one else like him.”
Boehner said he told the majority leader about his decision to step down just minutes before he spoke before the entire Republican conference, and joked that he had to tell McCarthy five times because the California Republican didn’t believe him. Boehner noted that he won’t be around to vote for the next speaker, but said he believes McCarthy would make “an excellent speaker.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the 2012 vice presidential nominee, is another person many consider a natural fit for the job. But Ryan flatly denied any interest in it shortly after Boehner’s announcement.
“This was an act of pure selflessness on the part of John Boehner,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to be speaker. It’s a good job for an empty nester. If you’ve got young kids at home, it’s not a good job for you.”
Others close to Boehner agreed that his decision is a loss for House Republicans, regardless of who may replace him. Rogers said McCarthy has “done a whale of a job as leader” and would be on his list as the next speaker. Rep. Tom Cole, another Boehner ally, also complimented McCarthy’s skills, but said Boehner will be tough to replace.
“It takes a master legislative strategist and dealmaker in a situation like that to get anything done and I don’t think there’s anybody better at that then John Boehner,” Cole told reporters shortly after the announcement, referring to the partisanship that has overtaken Capitol Hill. “When you lose your all-star quarterback, believe me, I don’t care how good they are on the bench, they’re never that good. It’s like losing Tom Brady. I’m sure there’s a pretty good guy behind him, but he’s not Tom Brady, and John Boehner is that kind of force inside the House and certainly inside our conference.”
House conservatives, who have been a thorn in Boehner’s side for much of his speakership and consistently challenged him on a wide variety of issues, were surprised by the announcement. After attempting to oust Boehner in back-to-back speakership elections in 2013 and early this year, they have continually called for changes in leadership over what they view as his unwillingness to fight for conservative principles.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and one of the most vocal Boehner critics, said for too long moderate Republicans have run the House.
“Typically, everything we do is worrying about 20 moderate Republicans or 10, whatever the numbers are,” Huelskamp said. “We need a speaker who is going to be a conservative leader and articulate that and John Boehner in my opinion didn’t do a very good job of that. He’s had a long record of distinguished service but it is time for new leadership.”
Rep. Thomas Massie, who co-sponsored a “motion to vacate the chair” this summer that would have challenged Boehner’s speakership, called the departure “pretty much inevitable.” Massie challenged any candidate interested in pursuing the speaker’s gavel to read the motion, which laid out conservative concerns about the culture within the House Republican conference and the way leadership made decisions.
“In the course of our history of this country, the speaker’s had a lot of power and he’s had little power. We are at an apex. The speaker has absolute authority over every committee chairman and that’s something that’s unhealthy for our republic,” Massie said. “He took everybody’s voting card. When you get here, the deal is you never vote against the speaker or you’ll lose your committee assignment, you’ll lose your subcommittee chairmanship. This is a condition of his own making, right here.”
In the short term, Boehner’s departure opens the path to avoid a government shutdown next week. The Senate will likely pass a “clean” continuing resolution that funds the government through Dec. 11, which conservative members say they would not vote for. Republicans leaving the meeting Friday morning said the plan was for them to ultimately vote before the deadline on that measure after the Senate passes it.
It if passes, that will set up a difficult first few months for Boehner’s successor. The next leader of the House will have to oversee budget negotiations with Democrats and the White House to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year. Democrats are pushing for spending increases over the sequestration levels set by the Budget Control Act, but any type of agreement with Democrats would represent exactly what conservatives criticized Boehner for so heavily. His replacement will also have to contend with raising the debt ceiling in late November or early December, which will be a fight of equal or greater magnitude.
Asked what he would miss about the House, Boehner said his colleagues and “the camaraderie” within the halls of Congress. As for what’s ahead for him after nearly 25 years on Capitol Hill, he said he hadn’t had time to process it yet, telling reporters he has “no idea” what his next step will be.
“But I do know this,” Boehner added. “I’m doing this today for the right reasons.”
Rebecca Berg contributed to this report.