John Boehner steps down: Self-sacrificing, but will it lead to better government?

House Speaker Boehner's decision to step down may put off a government shutdown in the short term. But what happens after he leaves with budget and debt-ceiling negotiations is potentially the bigger problem.

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    Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio discusses his resignation in a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, September 25, 2015. Boehner will step down and leave the House at the end of October after struggling with repeated rebellions by conservatives during a tumultuous five-year reign as the chamber's top Republican.
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John Boehner says that his decision to resign as House speaker and as a congressman, announced to a shocked Washington Friday, was never about finishing out the pope’s visit and then stepping down. But apparently Pope Francis' message of following the Golden Rule was at work.

Singing a snatch of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to the congressional press corps, the speaker – clearly relieved and at peace with his decision – said he got up Friday morning, said his prayers as he always does, and decided that this is the day. It’s time to end the “turmoil” over his leadership that’s been churning in his sharply divided Republican caucus for several months. He will leave Congress at the end of October.

“I don't want my members to have to go through this. I certainly don't want the institution to go through this," he said, speaking of an expected vote to challenge his leadership.

The timing is great – or horrible – depending on which side of the Republican divide one stands. Looming budget and debt-ceiling decisions will provide an opportunity for delighted hardliners to flex their muscles, while establishment Republicans are mourning that “the crazies” have won and fear another government shutdown. More broadly, though, there is a question among lawmakers and pundits as to whether Boehner's act of self-sacrifice really will calm the waters.

With or without the speaker, “the problems are not diminished that we face,” Rep. Greg Waldman (R) of Oregon told reporters after he emerged from the morning GOP conference meeting where Mr. Boehner dropped his bombshell news.

“We have to figure out a way to come together and find solutions that we can all agree on,” said Congressman Waldman. “It’s not easy out there. People are fired up. You see it in the presidential politics. You feel it here. We just represent the sentiment in the country,” said the congressman.

Right-wing conservatives were ecstatic at the news. When presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida announced Boehner’s pending resignation at a Values Voters Summit in Washington, the audience jumped to its feet in a standing ovation.

In the near term, Boehner and his counterpart in the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, seem determined to push through a “clean” short-term budget to spare the country from a shutdown on Oct. 1, when the government runs out of money. Hardliners have been looking for a showdown over the funding of Planned Parenthood.

What happens longer term – after Boehner leaves – with budget and debt-ceiling negotiations is potentially the bigger problem. With the speakership open, every GOP leadership position in the House could be affected. A leadership shakeup could well be occurring right when some of these larger issues need to be resolved.

At the moment, the conventional wisdom has the second ranking Republican, majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, winning an election for speaker – if he decides to run. Boehner said Friday that he thought that Representative McCarthy would “make an excellent speaker.” He told the No. 2 leader of his decision just minutes before the Friday morning GOP conference – having to repeat the news five times “because he didn’t believe me.”

Boehner’s resignation could be the kind of “sacrifice” the conference needs to move forward, says John Feehery, former spokesman for Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker of the House.

He also believes that a McCarthy election could help stabilize the raucous caucus. “I think that McCarthy, once he becomes speaker, will have some honeymoon for a while. And then we’ll be in a general election and the focus will change,” Mr. Feehery says.

Even so, McCarthy would generally do what Boehner did, and would try to avoid a government shutdown, Feehery says. “There are only a certain number of plays you can make.”

That’s not how hardliners see it. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas vows to vote for a speaker who will “stand up” for the party’s principles. The House has “an incredible power of the purse” that’s not being leveraged. It needs to be used on must-pass legislation, such as the budget, he says.

Asked about the basic political fact that Democrats can filibuster, or block, GOP legislation in the Senate and that the president, likewise, has a veto pen, Representative Huelskamp says the problem is that the president is not being challenged.

“The president has never been forced to negotiate, and when he did, John Boehner gave away the store,” said the congressman. “The House should play the leadership role in this town, and we’re basically following the president,” which is why Republican voters are so upset, he says. “There’s always an excuse ... for the status quo.”

This kind of thinking drives moderate Republicans such as Rep. Peter King (R) of New York to exasperation – possibly turning into confrontation.

“I don’t think there’s any way you can satisfy these people, and the time has to come when we just go to war with them,” Representative King said in an interview. He described Boehner’s resignation as “a victory for the bad guys,” lamenting that “the more he tried to work with them, the more they went after him.”

When asked what plans he might have for “firm action” against the right flank, he said he didn’t want to go public with any statement.

Given this divide, the next speaker will face the same problems Boehner did, says Ray Smock, former House historian.

“I don’t see the speaker’s resignation as solving any of the serious problems in the Republican caucus. The only truly happy person right now is John Boehner,” said Mr. Smock in an e-mail.

At times, the speaker was downright jovial at his press conference, even as he took his kerchief to his nose to mop up from his emotionalism and tears – for which he is famous.

More seriously, he urged Congress to stay focused on the priorities of the American people, and to work for “common ground” between Republicans and Democrats. 

As for the next speaker, the No. 1 responsibility is to “protect the institution,” he said. And secondly, “If you just do the right things every day, for the right reasons, the right things will happen,” he said. “I’m doing this today for the right reasons, and you know what? The right things will happen as a result,” he said.

He makes it sound so easy.

 
 
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