Almost five years after being propelled to the Speakership of the House of Representatives by a conservative tidal wave, John Boehner told Republican leaders in the chamber that he’ll resign from Congress in October.
The news stunned Washington and came just as day after Pope Francis, who Boehner invited to address Congress, gave an historic speech while Boehner, eyes moistened in one of his well-known displays of public emotion, looked on at an event he made happen.
Boehner’s difficulties with tea party conservatives—first elected in a huge 83-person freshman class in 2010 and whose ranks grew in 2014—has been a challenge throughout his speakership. Tea party congressmen pushed Washington partisanship to levels unseen in recent decades, shutting down the government and refusing to raise the government’s debt ceiling to advance causes they believe mainstream conservatives had long ignored. They demanded confrontation on shutting down Obamacare, cutting federal spending and most recently ending all federal aid for women’s health services at Planned Parenthood which also provides abortions.
The Ohio Republican, with nearly a quarter century in the House, Boehner, 65, was in a constant dance to try and come up with measures that would mollify the insurgents in his own party. In 2011, when it emerged that he’d been in secret talks with President Obama to come up with a “grand bargain” to stave off a government shutdown, tea party members of the House and their allies went ballistic and the notion of an accord was scuttled.
This week, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were investigating stop-gap measures that would allow the federal government to continue being funded through the end of the fiscal year, which would avoid a second shutdown on Boehner’s watch. One proposal was a “clean” vote on eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood while passing a temporary funding measure but conservative insurgents seemed to have the votes to thwart that compromise, despite polls showing that previous shutdowns, which slowed an already sluggish economy and made Washington look hopelessly incompetent, have generally worked to the benefit of Democrats.
For Boehner, the resignation comes as the capstone of remarkable personal story. The son of an Ohio “barkeep,” as Boehner often said, the future Speaker of the House went from sweeping saloon floors to second in line to the presidency delivering his party to majority control in 2010 after four years of being out of power. The GOP now has its largest majority in the chamber since 1928.
The Ohioan, with a fondness for Marlboros and Merlot, was never a moderate. He’d always been among the more conservative House members but he was part of what’s been called the “governing wing” of the party that would allow funding measures to pass and the wheels of government to turn. Much of this was pragmatism, Boehner dropped issues when it became apparent that defeat was inevitable. It’s a lesson Boehner well learned as he climbed the leadership ranks in the 1990s when two government shutdowns backfired on then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and solidified Bill Clinton’s popularity.
The Speaker’s pending resignation sets up a brawl for his chair and gavel. The House Majority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, an avuncular conservative with a fondness for Instagrams, is next in line but given the roiling waters in the House Republican Conference there’s hardly any guarantee of an easy succession. Tea party-aligned members such as Boehner’s fellow Ohio Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan, are expected to make bids as well. Technically the Constitution does not require that the Speaker even be a member of the House of Representatives, although that’s never happened.
Whoever fills Boehner’s position, they’ll be at pains to appease conservatives and other GOP constituencies—evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and big business groups—that have been livid about the government shutdowns and threat to not pay federal debtholders, moves which economists widely agree could damage the economy. With a fondness for golf, Boehner was business’s ally in these fights.
The turmoil among House Republicans could have wide fallout. GOP presidential candidates may be forced to take a position on who they’d like to replace Boehner. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a cordial enough relationship with Boehner but almost anyone who replaces the Ohioan will be under pressure to battle Pelosi and avoid gestures like the gentle peck on the cheek that Boehner has occasionally bestowed on the first female party leader in the House. The White House has lost an adversary, one who was seen as incapable of steering his ship, but someone who seemed to always wanted to keep the government working.
Boehner, whose perennial bronze glow often appeared orange, has often said how happy he was to be speaker and never aspired to the presidency. "I do drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. And I'm not giving that up to be president of the United States,” he told Jay Leno in 2014.