Fall of the House of Boehner

The departure of Congress’ most powerful man leaves a void that could be filled by more hardline conservatives

click to enlarge Speaker of the House John Boehner speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, D.C.
Speaker of the House John Boehner speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, D.C.

T

he clouds had been gathering over U.S. Rep. John Boehner from nearly the moment he started his tenure as House Speaker in 2011. Last week, the storm of discontent from far-right Republicans in Congress finally ushered him out, underlining deep faults in the country’s political landscape and leaving voids that could be filled by more hardline conservatives.

The week should have been a defining moment for the 65-year-old, who sits in Congress’ most powerful perch and is third in line for presidency.

Since he began serving in Congress in 1991, Boehner, an ardent Catholic, had been working on getting the pope to speak before the world’s most powerful deliberative body. On Sept. 24, he got his wish as the pontiff addressed Congress for the first time in history.

Late that night, Boehner, normally gruff with press, buttonholed two reporters outside his office and led them through a strange, emotional reenactment of a brief encounter he had with the religious leader. The next day, Boehner called a news conference and abruptly resigned from Congress.

Not known to be stoic, Boehner teared up and couched his decision in emotional terms, citing inspiration from the pope and the impact continued fighting with the far-right members of his party would have on his family and the government.

“It’s become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” he said during the news conference on Capitol Hill. “Just yesterday we witnessed the awesome sight of Pope Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world. Last night I started thinking about this, and I said my prayers, and this morning I woke up and said, ‘Today I’m going to do this.’ ”

That turmoil is rooted in a standoff between tea party conservatives in the House, who most recently have sought to pass a budget that strips controversial women’s health provider Planned Parenthood of federal funding, and Democrats, who have vowed to override any such legislation in the Senate. The fight could grind to a halt the federal government, which will run out of money at the end of the month — a replay of a similar impasse that occurred in 2013 over government spending.

But Boehner’s impending Oct. 31 departure gives little leverage to hard right insurgents in the House in the short term. On Sept. 28, Boehner indicated he would work with Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass a so-called “clean” budget without measures to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that will almost certainly avert a government shutdown, at least until December.

If the move seems self-sacrificial on Boehner’s part, it is only mildly so. He indicated in his resignation speech that he originally planned to announce on Nov. 17 — his birthday — that he would depart at the end of this year.

Still, Boehner’s is a suitably dramatic exit to a career that could have come from the script of a conservatively tinged movie about the American dream.

The second-oldest of 12 siblings, Boehner grew up just outside of Cincinnati in blue-collar Reading. He attended Moeller High School and worked as a janitor and a waiter at his parents’ bar, Andy’s Café, before taking a career in sales that would eventually make him millions. He got a taste for politics by leading his local home owners’ association, a humble position that got him started on a path from state representative to congressman to one of the country’s primary powerbrokers.

By the mid-1990s, Boehner had assumed a leadership role in the House as part of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s GOP revolution. But Boehner seemed to learn something cautionary from the brash and risk-taking Gingrich, who was ousted from the speaker’s chair in 1998.

Though Boehner is staunchly conservative himself, fighting with President Barack Obama and other Democrats over stimulus efforts and holding numerous votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he’s been old-school in his strategic approach relative to newer tea party congressional members. Boehner often preferred to work the intricate gears and mechanisms of the political process to achieve pro-life, anti-tax Republican agendas.

But tea party representatives who have swept into office since 2010 think playing that game is kowtowing to the political establishment. Better, they say, to throw a wrench in those gears entirely .

That attitude put Boehner in an untenable position, demanding he deliver results that were politically impossible. Making things more contentious, Boehner has opposed steps that could cause the federal government to shut down or default on debt payments.

Among Boehner’s most ardent critics have been representatives from his own backyard, including Rep. Thomas Massie of Northern Kentucky and Rep. Jim Jordan, who represents Urbana in Ohio. Both are affiliated with the tea party movement. Both have accused Boehner of not doing enough to end big government programs like the Affordable Care Act and of being too cozy with Washington lobbyists and career politicians.

There’s no denying Boehner is at this point among the most established of establishment GOP members. Still a consummate salesman, he’s raked in nearly $100 million in fundraising cash for the party in his congressional career, often from big-name corporate donors. That’s among the most ever for the party — only former presidential candidates like John McCain have raised more. Not exactly the mark of an outsider on a reform crusade.

Those who have come to Boehner’s defense are also from an older, more established school within the Republican Party. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rep. Steve Chabot have both praised Boehner since his announcement. Chabot said the speaker’s Sept. 24 news conference left him “choked up.”

Kasich lashed out at tea partiers in a Sept. 27 CBS Face the Nation appearance.

“A lot of the people who are doing the complaining and saying, ‘Why isn’t anything getting done?’ Maybe they ought to look in the mirror,” the GOP presidential primary contender said. “What have they accomplished? Are they just speech-makers? Are they just people out there yelling and screaming?”

The small but growing cadre of tea party-affiliated House members, currently embodied by the 40-member House Freedom Caucus, have been trying to rid themselves of Boehner for years. Most recently, they introduced a resolution to strip Boehner of his position. It was the first such action in Congress in 100 years, though the House didn’t take a vote on it.

Though unsuccessful, the moves to oust Boehner grew increasingly threatening and plausible. In the end, even the speaker saw the writing on the wall.

Massie has charged Boehner with “subverting our republic” for the way he’s run the House. He, Jordan and other staunch conservatives in Congress have cheered his resignation.

“I think it’s good news for the country,” Massie said the day after Boehner’s resignation. “Now it is up to members of Congress to decide what to do with the gift that has been handed to them. I hope we don’t squander it.”

That sounds an ominous note for Democrats and moderate Republicans who have been fighting against increasingly determined hard-right congressional newcomers swept in on the tea party wave. While Boehner has given his blessing to current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as the next speaker, there are other, more radical names in the mix as well, including long-shot tea party-approved candidates like Rep. Daniel Webster, who Massie likes.

The battle over the speaker’s chair has big implications. Congress must decide on billions in highway spending and whether to expand the federal government’s borrowing abilities by the year’s end. Both are big points of contention among tea partiers.

The shifting ground within the Republican Party could come home to Ohio as well. Though Boehner easily outpaced tea party challenger J.D. Winteregg in the 2014 GOP primary, the veteran’s departure leaves a large vacuum in the heavily Republican district just north of Cincinnati.

Among those with varying degrees of political viability interested in the seat is Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, already something of a national figure for his sometimes over-the-top statements about immigration and welfare. In response to Boehner’s announcement, Jones tweeted a picture of a contemplative-looking Homer Simpson with the words “Hmmmm… weighing out my options.” ©

UPDATES: Jones on Oct. 2 signaled in a press release that he would not seek Boehner's seat, leaving Winteregg and others to compete in a yet-unscheduled special election for Boehner's 8th District perch.

Boehner's second in command, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, on Oct. 8 dropped out of the race for House speaker, leaving uncertainty about which member of the GOP would take Congress' top spot.

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