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House Speaker John Boehner’s unexpected retirement announcement Friday is being considered a victory for the tea party faction that had pushed for his ouster for years, but the immediate result may be to thwart their hopes of shutting down the government next week.
And for Boehner, whose most important legacy as speaker has been to keep the ship of state afloat (apart from a 16-day government shutdown in 2013), that may be the point.
It will take Democratic votes in the House to pass a two-month stopgap spending bill, which the Senate is expected to approve Tuesday and would need to be sent to the president Wednesday to avert a shutdown. Boehner has relied on the minority party before in fights over spending bills, as a last resort, but the antigovernment conservative faction has been growing more powerful and assertive. In July, a conservative offered a motion to vacate the chair, a rare but serious move that, had it received enough votes, would have stripped Boehner of his gavel.
Thursday night, Boehner indicated to two reporters from Washington publications as he left the Capitol that he had “nothing left to accomplish” after bringing the pope to the Capitol, a visit for which he has lobbied the Vatican for decades. And so Friday morning he traded in his gavel, effective Oct. 30, freeing him to work on putting together a bipartisan majority to keep the government running for a few more months. The announcement shocked colleagues at a full conference meeting in the Capitol’s basement.
In a statement, Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, praised the outgoing speaker’s tendency to put “country and institution before self.”
“He is an ally. He is a friend. And he took over as Republican leader at a difficult time for his party. When some said Republicans could never recover, he never gave up. When some gave in to defeatism, he kept up the fight,” McConnell said. “Because he did, Speaker Boehner was able to transform a broken and dispirited Republican minority into the largest Republican majority since the 1920s.”
McConnell has repeatedly promised that under his watch Republicans would not shut down the government or default on its debt, so Boehner’s announcement should help him keep that vow. But the Treasury Department has said the government will exhaust its borrowing capacity sometime this fall, and Congress will have to act to extend the debt ceiling as well as consider full-year appropriations bills in December, if the House and Senate approve the continuing resolution next week.
Getting House Republicans in line for both of those tasks will not be easy, and the responsibility will likely fall to Boehner’s No. 2, Kevin McCarthy of California.
House Speaker John Boehner during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 25. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)
In 2014, Boehner had resigned himself to retiring as speaker in favor of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, according to sources familiar with his thinking at the time. But the House Republican world was flipped upside down in June of that year when Cantor was defeated by a tea party candidate in his primary election. In a post-Cantor world, Boehner allies believe McCarthy needed some time to prepare for the speakership, postponing the Ohio Republican’s rumored retirement plans.
McCarthy has had that time now and will stand for the speakership in an election by the full House, at a date to be determined. There will likely be at least one tea party challenger, perhaps more, but that faction has never been able to put together a majority of House Republicans, functionally because a serious division in GOP votes on the floor would enable California Democrat Nancy Pelosi to win a plurality of votes and become speaker again.
“Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead and always do what is best for the American people,” McCarthy said in a statement Friday.
But if recent history is any predictor, McCarthy and leadership allies will try to create a calendar that works to their advantage. The leadership is likely to press for a vote sooner rather than later, lest the speakership become an issue in the next Republican presidential debate on Oct. 28 — where the candidates might seek to outdo one another in whipping up the conservative base against the establishment.
That was the strategy in June 2014, when the leadership pushed for a swift conference election to replace Cantor to head off a conservative revolt and assure that McCarthy would ascend to the majority leader position.
The short calendar favored McCarthy because as majority whip, he had most direct contact with most members — he was responsible for securing and counting votes for any bill on the floor — and previously helped steward, with Cantor and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the “Young Guns” program that ushered in many of the conservative members who helped the GOP regain the majority in 2010. But it was that cohort that caused such problems for Boehner by gumming up the legislative works to pursue their antigovernment agenda. Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, said Friday he would not run for speaker out of concern for his young children, telling reporters that the speakership is an “empty nester” kind of job. Ryan had been a favored successor to Boehner by some in the outgoing speaker’s circle, dating back to the Cantor-Boehner power struggle that defined the first two years of the GOP majority.
But the speakership is not an ideal position for any presidential aspirant (ask Newt Gingrich how that goes), and Ryan, who already has been on a national ticket, would be best suited to stay out of leadership ranks if he ever plans on making a run for the White House again.
Regardless of how the voting for speaker and the other leadership roles plays out, the fundamental tension among Republicans remains.
There are those longtime members who believe that government has a role, albeit limited, to play in the lives of everyday Americans — and then the members who believe in little to no government at all.
Boehner clearly fell into the former category, and soon he will be gone. At this point, until the internal politics of the GOP swing decisively back in their favor, whoever takes up their mantle could be facing an uneasy — and possibly short — reign.