Exit Stage Right: Boehner’s Departure Leaves House in Turmoil

By Shawn Zeller, CQ Roll Call

As Pope Francis urged Congress to work together and remember the golden rule, Speaker John A. Boehner wiped tears from his eyes.

Story Photo

Boehner leaves his news conference after announcing his plans to resign.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On the one hand, it didn’t seem like much. Boehner, raised in a Catholic family of 12 children and educated at Jesuit-run  Xavier University, was characteristically emotional. But as Boehner continued to tear up, it seemed like something more substantial might be weighing on him.

The next morning, he shocked the Republican conference by announcing he would resign at the end of October. “The first job of any speaker is to protect this institution that we all love,” he said. “It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution.” As he walked through the Capitol afterward, Boehner told reporters, “It’s a wonderful day.”

Undoubtedly, after years of abuse from conservatives, interest groups and radio pundits, it felt that way.

But Boehner’s hope that his departure will herald a new, more conciliatory era in the House is almost certainly wrong.

More likely, it gets worse for his successor. Perhaps much worse.

CQ Now’s Adriel Bettelheim and Budget Editor Jane Norman give a quick analysis at how the drama in Congress is expected to unfold after Speaker John Boehner’s announcement.

Even if Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wins the speakership, which appears the most likely scenario, the California Republican will have only a few weeks to plot a course to extricate himself from the same predicament — force a government shutdown or risk a right-wing coup — that helped hasten Boehner’s departure.

“More conservative Republicans are very frustrated. They thought they were gonna solve their problems when they got a Republican House, and then they thought they were gonna solve their problems when they got a Republican Senate. But they’ve still been stymied by Obama,” says Robert L. Livingston, the former Appropriations chairman and presumptive speaker-to-be who resigned in 1999 before he could take Newt Gingrich’s spot atop the House. “The next speaker, whoever he is, is not going to be able to change the system.”

This dilemma reflects just how unappealing — weak, even — the speakership has become. One small indication of this was how quickly some possible candidates, most notably Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, ruled out a run for the top post.

The job of any speaker is to balance the institutional responsibility of running the House with the equally important job of leading his party. In an era of polarized government, that is proving impossible.

“Institutional maintenance means governing, dealing with the country’s problems in the public interest. Party leadership means retaining the majority and addressing the individual re-election imperatives of party members,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Almost from the moment the tea party swept Republicans into the House majority and Boehner into the speakership in 2011, Boehner found himself backed into corners repeatedly by the far right of his party.

First Boehner tried to strike a grand bargain with Obama on the deficit and entitlements. For the country, and Boehner’s legacy, it could have been a momentous achievement.

But conservatives revolted and Boehner backed down. He ended up with the sequester — senseless, painful across-the-board cuts that no one is happy with, and which did little to alleviate long-term budget pressures caused by health care spending for the elderly and Social Security.

Boehner’s battles with the right wing have continued, forcing him five times to bring to the floor crucial budget legislation in defiance of not only those most strident members, but a majority of his caucus. Like no other speaker in modern times, a party faction has openly defied him, called for his ouster, and spat on his leadership skills.

Those conservatives say it’s what their constituents want. “Ask any member who walks out of that hallway if the first, second or third question at every one of their town halls of the last six weeks wasn’t, ‘When are you going to replace the speaker?’ ” says Thomas Massie, the Kentucky Republican who has been among the most contemptuous of Boehner.

Doubling Down

For many conservatives right now, the path ahead will likely be doubling down on their battle against government funding of Planned Parenthood, the abortion provider that they argue has sold fetal body parts for profit.

For the last few weeks, Boehner, recognizing that such a fight would mean shutting down the government, has tried everything to convince them to stand down. He and his leadership team have spelled out the dynamics in the Senate. No bill defunding Planned Parenthood could pass there and, even if it did, Congress could not override an Obama veto.

GOP leaders two weeks ago brought to their caucus polling data to demonstrate that a shutdown fight would play badly for Republicans in battleground districts. They then brought up stand-alone bills that would defund Planned Parenthood. And they offered restive conservatives an alternative: a budget reconciliation bill that has the potential to strip more than three-quarters of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding and, because reconciliation bills skirt Senate rules requiring a 60-vote supermajority, could at least bring the fight directly to Obama.

Conservatives rejected the plan. Reconciliation, they noted, wouldn’t bring much pressure to bear, since its failure would bear no consequences, like a shutdown would.

Voters in Louisiana’s 4th District “don’t believe that we’re fighting against the extreme liberal agenda of Barack Obama and they’re tired of that,” says John Fleming, the district’s Republican representative.

On the House side of the Capitol after Boehner’s announcement, most Republicans said they believed that his decision to step down was a voluntary one. This is not the moment, they said, when the tea party takes over the House.

Rather, the general feeling was that Boehner saw Pope Francis’ visit as a worthy culmination of his time at the helm. “Clearly one of the most prolific moments in his speakership came yesterday,” says Arkansas Republican Steve Womack. “So on one hand, I am not surprised because of the magnitude of the events and what it meant to him personally.”

In a speakership where victories have been few and far between, overseeing the first papal speech to Congress was one for the ages. Boehner had taken pains to make it special, bringing the pope out onto the speaker’s balcony overlooking the National Mall where he’d arranged for 50,000 ticket holders to gather. “What a day,” Boehner said afterwards. “Let us all go forth with gratitude and reflect on how we can better serve one another.”

Boehner, in his resignation, acknowledged that he hadn’t quite figured that out. But he didn’t depart facing imminent ouster. In July, Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican angry that Boehner had disciplined him for voting against the rule governing floor consideration of a trade vote, threatened a vote on the speakership. But the fact that it was only a threat was telling.

Conservatives insist that they had no plan to immediately move for a vote on Meadows’ motion in light of the budget fight over Planned Parenthood. Nor are they predicting one of their own will be the next speaker.

“I don’t think that the conservative wing of the party has enough mass to get one of our own elected,” says Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who was one of the conservatives called into a meeting with Boehner just hours after the pope’s speech for a final confrontation. The best conservatives can hope for, Mulvaney adds, is to influence the outcome.

Indeed, the next speaker is more likely to be in Boehner’s mold, a House institutionalist, than a revolutionary. The apparent front-runner, McCarthy, is, if anything, less conservative than Boehner.

Presuming Boehner follows through on his pledges to push through a funding bill to keep the government open through Dec. 11 and resign at the end of October, the next speaker will have six weeks to avoid the next shutdown fight. Planned Parenthood will still be out there, but the number of issues separating Democrats and Republicans will grow. For example, Democrats are using all their power to pressure Republicans to raise the spending limits Congress agreed to in the 2011 sequestration deal.

The next speaker will be under constant pressure to take a hard line and perhaps to test the theory of governing spelled out last week by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz argues that Republicans must shut down the government.

The current Republican leaders, he wrote, are too willing to surrender. “The core of this capitulation comes from Republican leadership’s promise that ‘There will be no government shutdown.’ On its face, the promise sounds reasonable. Except, in practice, it means that Republicans never stand for anything.”

Cruz led the 2013 effort to shut down the government over funding for Obama’s 2010 health care law. After 16 days, Republicans capitulated fearing the electoral fallout of keeping the government closed any longer.

But Cruz and other advocates of the shutdown strategy argue that Republicans fared well in the 2014 elections, expanding their House majority and retaking the Senate. Perhaps the electoral dangers of shutting down the government are overblown and Obama will buckle if the next shutdown were allowed to drag on.

“They are still replaying the 1995 shutdown and wondering whether they should have held out longer,” says Dickinson, referencing the Gingrich-led budget fight with President Bill Clinton that resulted in a 27-day lapse in funding. “Some conservatives are still saying: ‘We shouldn’t have caved.’ ”

Conservatives in the House are already ramping up the pressure. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and persistent Boehner critic, says conservatives will have their say: “This is the second-most powerful position in Washington, D.C., and I don’t think it was used in a way to promote conservative principles.”

Massie says contenders for the job should read Meadows’ motion to oust Boehner “and see if they’re up for the job.”

Conservatives are also eyeing the Senate, waiting to see whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will respond to their demands for stronger action.

“If you insist on maintaining the modern filibuster rule without any changes whatsoever, then the Senate will lead Congress down a road to irrelevancy,” Mulvaney says. “Yes, this should be an absolute warning sign to McConnell.”

Interest groups, too, were quick to try to gain advantage in the next budget battle. “The next speaker must be committed to strong economic conservatism that includes holding the line on sequestration spending caps, and promoting pro-growth tax reform,” says David M. McIntosh, the former Indiana Republican representative who now heads the conservative Club for Growth.

With another budget fight with Obama looming in December, at which those spending caps will be at the center, the next speaker won’t have much room to maneuver within his party.

But if another institutionalist takes Boehner’s spot, as predicted, the shutdown tactics aren’t likely to last long. If the polls go south, Republicans aren’t going to want to explain it come January, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.

So the next speaker will either have to figure out a way to convince the conservatives to go along, or face the same abuse as Boehner. No one is predicting any honeymoon.

“The bottom line is, the Senate filibuster is what has divided this conference,” says Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who’s led the fight against Planned Parenthood. “Whoever’s in that speaker’s chair has the same mathematics, and they will not be able to repeal those mathematics until the rule in the Senate changes.”

Another Path

As a result, perhaps the next speaker will give the Cruz philosophy of governing a try, if only to show his right flank that it cannot work. Or maybe he’ll prove the prognosticators wrong and try to assuage them another way.

It’s part of the Boehner story that is too often ignored, says Matthew Green, a Catholic University of America professor who’s written a book on the speakership: Boehner’s laissez-faire style couldn’t keep his caucus in line. But it’s not the only way to lead.

“I like to call him a Sam Rayburn speaker in a Newt Gingrich House,” says Green. “His style doesn’t match the partisan ideological Congress we have now.” Rayburn, a famously low-key negotiator, served as speaker for 17 years between 1940 and 1961.

Perhaps, Green contends, the next speaker will try to tame his right wing using tactics other than adoption of their governing philosophy.

Boehner tried that, albeit awkwardly. In 2012, he removed Huelskamp and another uncompromising conservative, Justin Amash of Michigan, from the Budget Committee. Republican David Schweikert of Arizona, who’d ousted a fellow Republican, Ben Quayle, in a primary fight, and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, who bucks his party more than almost any other Republican member, lost seats on the Financial Services Committee.

Earlier this year, Boehner stripped Florida Reps. Daniel Webster and Rich Nugent of their seats on the Rules Committee after Webster ran against Boehner for speaker and Nugent supported him. Then, in June, Meadows was briefly removed from his Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee chairmanship, only to be reinstated a few days later.

Instead of inspiring fear in the rank-and-file, Boehner’s attempts at discipline only seemed to embolden the disaffected. That won’t necessarily be the case if a new speaker tries it, Green contends.

He notes that through history, speakers have done better with less public forms of discipline. “You have to be careful and subtle,” says Green. “It’s not easy, but it can be done.”

Perhaps the next speaker will find room for a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservatives’ new organization, in the top ranks of leadership. Maybe he will more aggressively tout their position from his bully pulpit, or push to restore the earmarks that once greased the wheels in Washington lawmaking (although conservatives say they don’t want that).

Frances Lee, a University of Maryland political scientist, expects that the next speaker will benefit by simply not being Boehner, the punching bag of conservative interest groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, and of the talk radio pundits.

She offers an alternative theory: that in the wake of Boehner’s resignation, his fellow establishment Republicans may now put their feet down and demand more discipline.

“Don’t assume this advantages the Freedom Caucus,” she says. “They got their scalp, but now they get a backlash. I don’t know if the rest of the caucus will want to give them anything more.”

Kate Ackley, Melissa Attias, Tamar Hallerman, Paul M. Krawzak and Melanie Zanona  contributed to this report.