The House next week will pass a “clean” continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, but that news was overshadowed Friday by the stunning announcement that Speaker John A. Boehner will give up his gavel, and his House seat, on Oct. 30.
The Ohio Republican made the announcement at a closed-door members’ meeting shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, one that was billed as “no staffers allowed” to avoid leaks to the press.
But one by one, lawmakers emerged from the meeting room and into the dimly-lit tunnels of the Capitol basement and confirmed the rumors quickly making the rounds among reporters and aides.
Nobody saw this coming, especially given Boehner’s focus over the past few weeks on coming up with a strategy to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1 and defund Planned Parenthood.
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His efforts to pacify conservative hardliners who wanted to oust him were on display as recently as Thursday night, as he hosted several configurations of different lawmakers for discussions on what they wanted or needed.
That Boehner ultimately decided he no longer wanted to serve amid the pressure was shocking to members, especially his staunchest allies who exited the meeting Friday visibly shaken by the news.
“Any honest member of the Republican Conference will tell you that’s in the forefront of our minds, and it has been for a long time, and it’s been present in the mind of the speaker,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., of the anticipation of a privileged motion to vacate the chair that could come at any time.
Many GOP lawmakers spoke of Boehner’s sacrifice in leaving office to quell discontent, even those who have clashed with him previously, like Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., who voted for fellow Florida Republican Daniel Webster for speaker back in January, culminating in both of their dismissal from the Rules Committee.
“I think the speaker did a very standup thing today because he did it for the Congress and he did it for our conference,” Nugent said. “He didn’t want to see an internal fight that could have happened. He was very confident he could win that fight but he’s more about trying to heal everybody. … I was critical of the speaker, but this is something — he was a class act.”
Some, such as Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., were deeply angry: “I would say that the honor of John Boehner this morning stands in sharp contrast to the self-serving idiocy of those in our party who seek to continually divide us. John Boehner is an honorable man, what he did this morning was remarkable.”
Others, such as Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., were deeply emotional: “He is willing to take the bullets for so many members of Congress and has been a protector of this institution. May God bless the next speaker of the House, because that person will need God’s mercy, wisdom and grace.”
Many said his exit was inevitable.
“He, by his own admission, said it was his plan to only serve through the end of this year, although none of us — at least I didn’t know that,” said National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Walden of Boehner, who had been maintaining he had no plans to retire anytime soon.
A Boehner aide later told CQ Roll Call the speaker had actually planned to serve through the end of last year, but the surprise primary defeat of ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., “changed that calculation.”
Boehner himself, in an official statement, confirmed that.
“The first job of any Speaker is to protect this institution that we all love. It was my plan to only serve as Speaker until the end of last year, but I stayed on to provide continuity to the Republican Conference and the House,” he said. “It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution.”
Walden and Womack said they suspected Pope Francis’ Thursday visit was a pivotal event for Boehner, a devout Catholic.
“He has deep faith, you know. Obviously yesterday was an incredibly important date for him. I don’t know what he and the pope talked about. I don’t know if it was a message from God but I wish he’d sent a different message!” Walden said, trying to bring a bit of levity to the situation.
“I’m surprised but not surprised, when you consider the events of yesterday, how important emotionally this was to John Boehner, to have the pontiff, the most recognizable religious symbol on the planet, speaking under his leadership to a joint session of Congress in the People’s House, the most recognized symbol of freedom and liberty around the world,” Womack said. “What better way to go out as speaker than in the aftermath of the visit by the pope?”
There were plenty of House Republicans who crowed over Boehner’s resignation, like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who described Boehner’s tenure as one that “caused the power of the House of Representatives to atrophy.”
But there was also a sense among his critics of being humbled, of not wanting to dance on Boehner’s proverbial political grave.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who introduced the idea of the motion to vacate the chair in late July, released a statement saying “Boehner has served honorably during a difficult time.”
“At times I differed from Speaker Boehner, on policy and procedural positions,” Meadows said, “but I commend him for his honorable service, his humility, and his undeniable love for his country and his desire to serve this great nation. I look forward to an open and inclusive discussion as the House pursues new leadership.”
“I think that was a very statesmanlike thing that the speaker has done to announce his resignation,” said another adversary, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., “knowing that there was a groundswell of discontent among his base.”
Talk quickly shifted to speculation as to who would succeed Boehner as speaker.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is emerging as a leading candidate, though members throughout the conference will have to decide who is best equipped to lead in a political environment that will not necessarily get any less challenging by Boehner’s exit.
A few members thought to be weighing runs for the top job discounted those rumors on Friday, among them Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
A news conference was scheduled for the conclusion of the GOP conference meeting originally sold as a chance for members to weigh in on leadership’s emerging Planned Parenthood and CR strategy, but it was ultimately canceled.
Boehner, for his part, strode past swarms of reporters refusing to comment any further than to say, “It’s a wonderful day.”
Matt Fuller, Melanie Zanona, Melissa Attias and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.