The hallmark moment of John A. Boehner’s nearly five-year run as speaker came Thursday, as the leader of the House Republican Conference, a Catholic, welcomed the pope to the Capitol. By the next morning, the embattled Boehner would announce his resignation to his colleagues in a closed-door meeting, sparking a whirlwind day on the Hill as his tumultuous reign over a fractured party had at last expired.
“Just yesterday we witnessed the awesome sight of Pope Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world — and I hope we will all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule. But last night, I started to think about this,” Boehner recounted at a 1 p.m. news conference Friday. “And this morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this.”
The Ohio Republican made the announcement at a closed-door members meeting shortly after 9 a.m., 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, confirming the rumors already making the rounds among reporters and aides.
Nobody saw this coming, at least not on this day, 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 to defund Planned Parenthood. He held court in his office for nearly three hours Thursday after the pope’s departure, inviting groups of lawmakers in for discussions on how best to move forward.
As a long Thursday wound down, the speaker and his lieutenants worked on a multi-pronged plan to present to fellow Republicans when the Conference gathered Friday morning, even as the speaker clearly had something else on his mind.
According to Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., besides informing lawmakers of his impending resignation, Boehner told them in the meeting Friday he planned to put a clean continuing resolution on the floor — a move his critics had warned could cost him his gavel. With that no longer an issue, speculation immediately turned to succession, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., heavily favored to be the next speaker and the No. 2 spot in the Conference emerging as the real fight.
The news of Boehner’s resignation, effective Oct. 30, was met with wildly different reactions. At the Omni Shoreham hotel across town, as the Values Voter Summit was getting started, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., relayed it to a crowd of Christian conservatives in town to hear from a swath of the GOP presidential field, and the announcement was met with boisterous applause and a standing ovation.
“It’s not about him or anyone else, and I’m not here to bash anyone, but it is time to turn the page,” Rubio said.
But Boehner also received plenty of warm respect in the immediate aftermath, both from his allies in the House and the two Senate leaders, who took to the Senate floor around 11 a.m. to shower him with appreciation and good wishes.
“Speaker Boehner was able to transform a broken and dispirited Republican minority into the largest Republican majority since the 1920s. That’s a legacy few can match,” McConnell said.
After noting the importance of the pope’s visit to Boehner, McConnell added later: “That he chose this moment to make this decision means he’s willing to leave us in a similar spirit. I know we’ll all have more to say then. But for now, thank you, my friend.”
Democrats, who worked closely with Boehner for the last half-decade — often out of the public eye — revealed their appreciation for the outgoing speaker’s pragmatism, even when his conservatism clashed with their priorities.
“I have not always agreed and was not always happy with what John told me, but he never, ever misled me. He never, ever told me something that wasn’t true,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “His word was always good.”
Reid also used the opportunity to share his disappointment with the GOP for, as he put it, allowing the hardliners on the right to take over. “To say that I will miss John Boehner is a tremendous understatement.”
Speaking at a joint press conference shortly after noon with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the White House Rose Garden, President Barack Obama expressed a similar sentiment about Boehner.
“We have obviously had a lot of disagreements, and politically we’re at different ends of the spectrum,” Obama said. “But I will tell you, he has always conducted himself with courtesy and civility with me. He has kept his word when he made a commitment. He is somebody who has been gracious.
“And I think maybe most importantly, he’s somebody who understands that in government, in governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you have to work with people who you disagree with — sometimes strongly — in order to do the people’s business.”
As Obama was speaking, the speaker’s office announced Boehner would hold a briefing with reporters at 1 p.m. Not surprisingly, the session would be filled with emotion, as Boehner’s trademark tears reappeared in what will be one of his final weekly meetings with the Capitol press.
His several minutes of remarks included the revelations that his original plan to step down at the end of 2014 was delayed that June by former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss and that he’d been planning recently to announce his resignation on Nov. 17, his 66th birthday, effective the end of 2015. But he woke up on Sept. 25 and knew it was the day, he said.
Boehner then took a few questions, the last being what his plans are for the future.
“You know, when you make a decision this morning, you haven’t had — really haven’t had any time to think about what I’m going to do in the future,” he said. “I have no idea, but I do know this: I’m doing this today for the right reasons, and you know what? The right things will happen as a result.”
Emma Dumain, Matt Fuller and Eli Yokley contributed to this report.