Boehner’s Final Days

After the Pope, there was nothing left for the speaker of the House.

Pope Francis Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Pope Francis, left, waves to the crowd from the balcony of the U.S. Capitol as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on on Sept. 24, 2015, in Washington.

Photo by Evy Mages/Getty Images

When Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon met with Speaker John Boehner on Thursday, Salmon knew something was different. “I thought something was up,” said Salmon who, along with other conservatives bucking Boehner, met with the House speaker for an hour Thursday evening. They were there to negotiate funding the government, which the members of the Freedom Caucus said they would not support if funding for Planned Parenthood were included. “He was resolute about the continuing resolution,” said Salmon, referring to Boehner’s choice for keeping the government funded. “He usually offers a few options. He wasn’t trying to find an alternative. He wasn’t mean about it. He was very matter of fact.”

Another person in the meeting said that Boehner made the case for why he should keep his job, and the conversation turned to whether there would be an effort to oust him. He explained all that he had done for conservatives and reasserted his pro-life credentials. If he put up a real defense then it suggests that Boehner wasn’t on his way out and really may have made the decision Thursday night. 

Something was up indeed. Usually Boehner tries to allow the House to “work its will,” but his will was in play this time. Boehner wasn’t trying to accommodate the conservatives in the normal fashion because his job was no longer on the line. It wasn’t on the line because he was taking himself out of the game. On Friday morning Boehner announced that he is leaving Congress and leaving his top post on Oct. 30. The conventional wisdom at the moment is that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will take the spot. Rumors were circulating Friday morning that he was already whipping votes. 

McCarthy is not as conservative as Boehner, which will be a challenge for him. But the bigger challenge is that he’ll need conservative votes to get elected, and those conservatives are making demands. What conservatives want is for the new speaker to be more assertive. That means with the president but also with Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who conservatives say should change the filibuster rules to keep Democrats from blocking conservative priorities. It’s not usually very easy for the leader of one house of Congress to tell the leader of anohter house what to do. If the new speaker doesn’t keep the pressure on McConnell and deliver results, predicts one Boehner ally, “We’re going to be right back here in the same place in six months.”

One of the ironies for Boehner is that as he heads out the door, conservatives give him credit for fighting to rid the House of earmarks. That was a tool he could have used to keep his fidgety conference in line. But it also demonstrated the high-water mark for his level of activity. When conservatives didn’t see him fighting as hard for the president’s executive action on immigration or against Planned Parenthood funding, they charged that his heart wasn’t really behind those conservative priorities. So the critique wasn’t that Boehner didn’t fight for conservative principles. He just didn’t fight for every one. That’s a high bar for the next speaker.

Thursday was a moment of highs and lows for the speaker of the House. The former altar boy who attended Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Reading, Ohio, hosted the Pope. He’d been working on that project for 20 years. “It’s a pretty big deal for a little Catholic boy like me,” he said. After experiencing the eternal questions in the Pope’s presence and the soul-examining questions in his address, Boehner then spent that hour with restive members of his conference discussing the details of funding the government and defunding Planned Parenthood. The descent from high to low happened at a velocity that could have been clocked by NASA. 

Friday morning as Boehner let his conference know his decision, a House colleague was heard to utter an expletive—a reference one member told me to those conservative representatives who were pressuring Boehner. Boehner heard the epithet, according to the account, and said he was stepping down to help bring the conference together, not to initiate new rounds of recrimination. 

The fight over funding Planned Parenthood was the proximate cause for Boehner’s latest fight with conservatives, but the departure was really the result of many of the fights from the past and the fights that were likely in the future. Conservatives feel he hasn’t fought the administration hard enough and used the power of the purse rigorously enough. “In my district John Boehner is less well-liked than Barack Obama,” said one member of the restive caucus.

Conservatives are also angry that Boehner didn’t pick more fights with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I would want him to go after Mitch McConnell,” says Salmon about what he would want from the next speaker. “He so lamely uses the 60-vote threshold, and the next speaker should tell him to stand up and knock it off.” Salmon and others think that McConnell could do away with the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, as Democratic Leader Harry Reid did for judicial appointments. 

But there was just too much plaque built up over time from these battles between the speaker and the core group of conservatives who he and his team refer to as the “Hell No Caucus.” Also, Boehner had just achieved the height of his speakership. (In my calls this morning, Boehner’s friends and allies weren’t sure whether being named speaker or hosting the Pope was the bigger honor in his life.) 

The theory is that by stepping down, Boehner will allow Republicans to start afresh. But the problems are still there. Conservatives want action, but they are limited by the Senate and a Democratic president. “The crazies have taken over,” said New York Republican Rep. Pete King. Newt Gingrich told Fox News that Boehner faced what he had once faced as speaker. “Part of your party has demands that are not reachable, and they view your failure to reach them as a sign they need somebody new who somehow magically is going to get what they want,” said Gingrich, who stepped down from the position for similar reasons.

When Sen. Marco Rubio announced that Boehner was stepping down at the Value Voters Summit, a gathering of social conservatives, the room erupted into applause. Rubio used the moment to make the case for a new generation of leadership. Heritage Action Fund, which was among the groups Boehner criticized for raising money by stirring up conservatives with false claims, danced on Boehner’s grave. Sen. Ted Cruz kicked him on the way out the door, accusing Boehner of selling out his constituents. 

Boehner’s great achievement was bringing the Pope and his message of fellow feeling to Congress. But those lessons of caring for the person beyond his or her politics weren’t in much evidence among Boehner’s detractors. The speaker could bring everyone together in the same room, but that doesn’t mean he could make them listen. That was true of his tenure too, but on his way out at least one of his adversaries had a kind word. “He has a very kind heart. He is a very decent human being,” said Salmon. “Sometimes a leader has to take really tough positions. He did today, and he did the right thing by stepping down. If you are going to sum up everything, you’d have to include this selfless act by putting Congress before himself.”

Update, Sept. 25, 2015: This post has been updated with additional information in the second, fourth, and fifth paragraphs.