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After a turbulent teeter-totter of a week that included a visit from the pope and threats of a government shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner woke up Friday and decided it was time to go.
Boehner, 65, stunned his Republican conference hours later by announcing he would resign from office Oct. 30. The move sent shockwaves through Washington; though many had theorized about Boehner’s departure, not even his No. 2 in the Republican leadership was in the loop until minutes before Boehner told House Republicans in a closed-door meeting Friday morning.
“This morning I woke up, said my prayers, as I always do, and thought, ‘This is the day I am going to do this,’ ” the West Chester Twp. Republican said.
The most likely contender for the speakership is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, but it’s expected others will run for the position.
On Friday, Boehner said McCarthy “would make an excellent speaker.”
President Barack Obama praised Boehner as “a good man” and a patriot on Friday.
“Maybe most importantly, he’s somebody who understands that in government and governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” Obama said. “We can have significant differences on issues but that doesn’t mean you shut down the government.”
Boehner had originally planned to serve through the end of last year, but decided to stay after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election in 2014.
After that, Boehner decided to announce his retirement on his birthday – Nov. 17. But faced with pressure from the conservative wing of his party that has consistently given him heartburn since he took the speaker’s gavel in 2011, Boehner decided to move up that date. He was particularly sensitive about the prospect of having his fellow Republicans vote on a measure introduced by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to toss Boehner out of his speaker position.
“I don’t want the institution hurt, and I don’t want my colleagues hurt … I’m doing this for the right reasons,” he added during comments that featured both tears and visible relief. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”
Boehner faced a fractious party since the moment he took control. In 2012, his party rebelled against a Boehner plan to avoid a “fiscal cliff” by extending tax breaks for everyone making less than $1 million a year. He had to pull the plan because he didn’t have the votes. It was the first of many times he’d have to pull Republican bills off the floor after threats of rebellion by a small fraction of his caucus that included Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, whose district abuts Boehner’s. Some national blogs and websites touted Jordan as a possible replacement as speaker.
In time, that dissent grew, and presidential candidates including Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have accused Boehner of being weak and for compromising too much.
In July, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a tea party conservative, introduced a measure that would have ousted Boehner from his leadership position. Friday, Meadows sent out a statement commending Boehner “for his honorable service, his humility, his undeniable love for his country and his desire to serve this great nation.”
Despite that, Boehner continued a heavy schedule of fundraising for his party. He spent 35 days on the road this summer raising money for House Republicans and working to recruit strong candidates.
‘Adult in the room’
Boehner’s supporters said that anyone in Boehner’s position would face criticism: While the House and Senate are Republican, the Senate is narrowly so, and the White House is Democratic. Boehner, they say, is not a dictator.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, said he spoke with the speaker at length on Thursday and Boehner mentioned his frustrations. But Portman didn’t know this was coming.
He said Boehner has served with “grace and dignity.” “It’s like herding squirrels, being speaker of the House,” he said.
While campaigning for president in South Carolina Friday, Gov. John Kasich said he learned of Boehner’s resignation on the television news. He said he left a message for Boehner earlier in the week saying, “Hey hang in there.”
“Being speaker of the house is the hardest job there is,” Kasich said.
Boehner, the golf-loving, perpetually tanned son of a Cincinnati-area bartender, was elected to Congress in 1990. He was elected majority leader in 2005 and speaker in 2011.
The former Ohio House member had set his sights on leadership almost from the moment he entered the House, with a portrait of Cincinnati native Nicholas Longworth, the last Ohioan to serve in the No. 3 post of the federal government, hanging in his personal office.
“I think he believed it was time,” said Dave Schnittger, a former aide to Boehner.
‘Today’s the day’
Boehner said after Pope Francis left Thursday night, he talked to his chief of staff and “told him what I was thinking.” He told his wife. Then, Friday morning, he woke up, went to Starbucks, walked to a nearby diner, got home and thought “today’s the day.”
He told his senior staff during a meeting at 8:45. He told McCarthy minutes before the GOP caucus meeting, and had to repeat it a few times before the California Republican believed him.
The Oct. 30 timetable may actually keep the government from shutting down next week, Stivers said: Because he no longer faces a coup from right-wing conservatives, Boehner might be able to move freely to back legislation to pay for the government, raise the debt ceiling and pass a highway bill without having to tiptoe around the complaints from the tea party flank of his party.
Boehner offered few details. “I’m not going to sit around and do nothing here for the next 30 days,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and I plan on getting as much of it done as I can.”
As Boehner made his announcement, conservatives gathered at the Values Voters Summit across town cheered his departure. When Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, relayed the news to the summit, those in the room stood up and cheered.
While Rubio said “it is important at this moment with respect to him and the service that he’s provided to our country,” he added, “the time has come to turn the page. The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country.”
Later, Cruz did something akin to a victory dance at the same forum.
“You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?” Cruz asked. “Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y’all come to town, and somehow, that changes. My own request is, can you come more often?”
Former Rep. David L. Hobson, R-Springfield, a friend of Boehner’s, said the Republican party owed its success in part to Boehner.
“John was one of the people who brought us out of the wilderness when we didn’t have anybody into the promised land, and now they’re throwing him under the bus,” he said, referring to the rebellious flank in his party. “I feel bad for the country. I think John was great for our party and great for our country and I’m honored to have served with him.”
Boehner’s resignation will set up a frantic search to replace him, and the conventional wisdom early on is that McCarthy is his most likely successor.
In a statement, McCarthy called Boehner “a leader, mentor, and most of all a friend.”
“As our country has weathered difficult times at home and abroad, John has acted as a true statesman, always moving forward with the best interests of the American people close to his heart,” he said. “He will be missed because there is simply no one else like him.”
Boehner, meanwhile, refused to speculate on his legacy. He doesn’t know yet what he’ll do Nov. 1. And he won’t speculate on life after so many years in the House.
“I don’t know what I’m going to miss,” he said. “I haven’t missed it yet.”
Darrel Rowland and Mark Ferenchik contributed to this story.