By Deirdre Shesgreen, USAToday
WASHINGTON — It took a visit from the pope, a brewing conservative rebellion, and a good night’s sleep for John Boehner — the son of a bartender and a devout Catholic from Cincinnati — to decide that Friday morning was the right moment for him to end his tumultuous five-year speakership and bring his 25-year career in Congress to a close.
“This morning, I woke up and I said my prayers and I decided today’s the day I’m going to this,” Boehner told reporters in an emotional news conference on Friday afternoon, a few hours after he stunned Washington by announcing that he planned to resign, effective Oct. 30. “It’s as simple as that.”
But of course, it was not that simple.
Boehner disclosed his decision less than 24 hours after he reveled in the first-ever papal speech to a joint session of Congress, something he has dreamed of for 20 years — and as the government was on the verge of another shutdown, with Boehner’s fractious caucus battling over a bill to fund the government beyond Sept. 30. Conservatives were threatening to oust Boehner from the speaker’s post if he did not take a hard line in using that spending bill to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, a reproductive health care provider that has come under scrutiny for its handling of fetal tissue.
“It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” Boehner told reporters Friday. “I don’t want my members to have to go through this. And I certainly don’t want the institution to have to go through this.”
Besides, Boehner said, “I was thinking about walking out the door anyway.”
When he was first elected speaker in 2011, Boehner said, he had only planned to serve two terms in that leadership role. But then last spring, his deputy and successor-in-waiting, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, lost his primary race in a huge upset. Fearing the GOP leadership was not seasoned enough, Boehner quietly determined he would stay on for another year, and he planned to announce his resignation on Nov. 17 — his 66th birthday.
On Wednesday evening, after an exhilarating and emotional day spent at the side of Pope Francis, Boehner started thinking about moving up that date. He said the pope’s visit was not the inspiration for his decision.
But the former altar boy, who grew up attending mass every morning before school, was clearly overwhelmed by the pontiff’s presence. He talked about a moment Wednesday when he and the pope found themselves alone, just before they greeted a crowd of well-wishers gathered for the papal address on the West Front of the Capitol.
“The pope grabbed my left arm and said some very kind words to me about my commitment to kids and education,” Boehner said, choking up as he recounted his private conversation with the leader of the Holy See. “And the pope put his arm around me and said, ‘Please pray for me’.”
Boehner was overcome with humility by the pope’s request. “Who am I to pray for the pope?” he said.
The next morning, the speaker, the second oldest in a family of 12 from Reading, Ohio, walked into an 8:45 staff meeting. “This is the day,” he told them.
He made it official at a 9 a.m. meeting of the House Republican conference, which he started with a business-as-usual recitation of the legislative schedule before disclosing he would step down. The mood quickly turned somber, as one GOP lawmaker after another rose to offer their heart-felt assessments of his tenure and their shock at his impending departure.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said he stood up and talked about one of his first encounters with Boehner three years ago, at a fundraiser for children attending inner-city schools.
“It’s what you do when no one’s looking that matters,” Wenstrup said. He told the GOP conference about the “men for others” motto they both learned at their Jesuit high schools in Cincinnati and said: “I think that’s what we’re seeing here today. … You are a man for others.”
Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot said Boehner “fell on his sword for the rest of the conference so we didn’t have to go through a bitter, divisive battle about his speakership.” And, Chabot added, he also went out on his own terms — with the glow of the pope’s visit enshrining his departure.
“John just spent a day with the pope … and that’s a huge deal,” Chabot said. “Why not go out when you’re at the top of your game, and I think he did that.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Boehner can be proud of a “legacy few can match” — transforming “a broken and dispirited Republican minority into the largest Republican majority since the 1920s.”
Praise flowed in from outside the House as well. President Obama called Boehner “a patriot who cares deeply about the House.”
“Most importantly, he’s somebody who understands in government, in governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” Obama said. “You have to work with people you disagree with. … My hope is there’s a recognition on the part of the next speaker … that we can have significant differences on issues, but that doesn’t mean you shut down the government.”
Former president George H.W. Bush said “few people have done more in recent years to build the Republican Party and make it a viable force in national politics than has Speaker John Boehner.”
Others were not so laudatory.
“John had allowed the Congress to become irrelevant,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a hard-charging conservative and Boehner foe. He said the speaker refused to use Congress’ power over spending to bend Obama to the GOP’s will.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., called Boehner’s resignation “good news for the country” in a tweet Friday. Massie led a failed uprising in January aimed at denying Boehner a third term as speaker, and he has consistently criticized Boehner’s legislative tactics as too conciliatory.
On the presidential campaign trail, GOP candidates chimed in, too. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced Boehner’s resignation to the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington. Many in the audience stood and cheered the news.
“I’m not here today to bash anyone, but the time has come to turn the page,” Rubio said. “The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leaders” to lead this country.
Fellow GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, also at the summit, said of Boehner’s departure: “It’s time. I think it’s time for him, it’s probably time for the party, it’s time for everybody.”
Some of Boehner’s allies feared his departure would look like a capitulation to conservatives, who would now be emboldened to push for regular showdowns with Obama and Senate Democrats, no matter the chances of winning those battles.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said the current GOP leadership — he did not name Boehner specifically — had been “too accommodating” to the right flank in the caucus. “That’s going to end,” he said. “We’ve had enough of that.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and a Boehner ally, echoed that, saying “we can’t continue to allow this super-ultra minority to dictate” the GOP’s legislative agenda.
Possible successors include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and, also in GOP leadership, Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tea Party conservative Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho could also seek the job.
Boehner said the choice of who follows in his footsteps will be up to his colleagues, quickly adding that he thought “Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent speaker.”
Asked if he had been pushed out, Boehner said flatly, “No.”
“I’ve done everything I can to strengthen the institution,” he added, “and my move today is another step in that effort.”
Boehner declined to say what he would do next, although he hinted that his wife, Debbie, was thrilled. He said he told her about his decision first thing Friday morning, and her response was: “Good.” Boehner said it will be a relief for his family, including his two daughters, who are now 35 and 37, to stop hearing all the attacks against him.
“It’s one thing for me to endure it. I’ve got thick skin,” he said. “But the girls and my wife have had to put up with a lot.”
Even as his eyes welled with tears, he seemed very comfortable in his decision, joking with reporters that he’d miss them and breaking into a refrain of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A,” in the middle of his news conference.
“I’m doing this today for the right reasons and the right things will happen as a result,” he said, using — probably not for the last time — one of his favorite phrases.
Asked what legacy he would leave in the House, he said he wanted to be remembered as “being fair, being honest, and being straightforward.”
But, he said, “I was never in the legacy business. I’m a regular guy with a big job.”
(Contributing: Cooper Allen, Paul Singer, Chrissie Thompson, David Jackson, Ray Locker and Erin Kelly)