The resignation of embattled House Speaker John Boehner signals a small but meaningful victory in the crusade by conservatives to dramatically change how the federal government is run and funded, a battle that resumes right away and will continue throughout the presidential campaign and beyond.
Boehner is likely to be replaced as speaker by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, a mainstream dealmaker akin to Boehner. But conservatives are likely to move up the ladder of congressional leadership behind him. And having helped force Boehner out, they are likely to be emboldened to increasingly challenge the status quo.
The Republican schism will resurface quickly Monday, as Congress begins voting on whether to fund the government past Wednesday night, when money is due to run out. The turmoil in his party – underscored in a closed-door meeting Thursday where conservatives said they would challenge him – was a key reason Boehner accelerated his secret plan to step down.
The diehards won’t back a budget unless Planned Parenthood is stripped of federal funding, and may have the votes to get their way. They see too much eagerness among Republican leaders to give in.
That’s why they rejoiced Friday at the news Boehner, 65, the affable Ohio Republican who for years engaged Democrats to win tough budget battles, would leave office Oct. 30.
“This is one of the greatest changes that’s happened in Washington,” said Adam Brandon, chief executive officer of Freedom Works, a conservative group. “The old go-along-get-along ways are over because people realize that kicking the can down the road doesn’t work.”
Conservative Republicans were quick to brand Boehner a relic of a bygone era.
“You cannot be an effective check and balance against (an) overreaching executive if you’re still operating Congress like you did in the 1990s,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
Mulvaney and other conservatives met Thursday with Boehner and told him they would seek to remove him as speaker. They said they no longer had confidence in his leadership.
Boehner had sought the meeting with the Freedom Caucus, considered the House’s most hardcore Republican conservative group. They met to talk about the future of federal money for health care services at Planned Parenthood, which also provides abortions.
Boehner has been considering a vote to defund Planned Parenthood separate from the overall funding bill. The conservatives were not pleased. “John didn’t hear what we were saying,” Mulvaney said.
Many contributing factors for Boehner
Boehner revealed that he had planned to step down at the end of last year but changed his mind after Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his re-election bid. This year, Boehner had hoped to announce on his 66th birthday, Nov. 17, that he would leave at the end of the year.
But he faced not only a looming budget chaos, but a prolonged series of struggles that would again pit the party’s factions against one another. Highway funding is due to run out Oct. 29. The debt ceiling could be reached sometime in November. And even if Congress approves a budget next week, it’s likely it will fund the government only until Dec. 11.
Boehner had had enough. He had enjoyed one of his career’s defining moments Thursday when Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress and met privately with Boehner, a devout Catholic.
“I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this,” he told reporters of his surprise decision. “As simple as that.”
He wouldn’t say his emotional visit with the pope influenced his decision, but he almost broke down Friday when describing the encounter. “The pope puts his arm around me and kind of pulls me to him and says please pray for me. Who am I to pray for the pope? But I did,” Boehner said.
Colleagues thought it had an impact. “I think yesterday was the culmination of his career,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio. “He gets to go out on a high note, the pope.”
The prospect of more challenges from conservatives weighed on him as well. “It is my view … that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution,” Boehner said.
None of this means change is imminent, just more likely.
President Barack Obama still has 16 months in office, and it still takes 60 votes in the Senate – there are 54 Republicans – to get much done, meaning the highway, debt and budget battles will be long, ugly and unpredictable. The next speaker could be in for a rough time.
“I doubt this group of obstructionists will be supportive of whomever succeeds John as speaker, but we can always hope they will become team players,” said former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole.
A chance for conservatives
Majority Leader McCarthy, whose style and philosophy are nearly identical to Boehner’s, is the early favorite to succeed him. Boehner said McCarthy would make an “excellent speaker.”
Conservatives’ incremental progress could be evident, since next in line behind McCarthy is Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., now the third-ranking House Republican and one of their favorites.
Conservatives have long wanted to elevate one of their own to speaker, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., launched a challenge in July. But they’ve been unable to get enough support or agree on a consensus candidate. Few wanted to discuss such matters Friday.
“Today is not the day for such talk,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, one of those usually on the list of possible successors. “But I am committed to supporting leaders who will keep our promise to the American people to fight for real change in Washington.”
Boehner is just one congressional domino conservatives want to topple. Many have blamed the Senate and its filibuster rules for thwarting their efforts to best Obama and push their agenda.
Since taking the majority in both chambers, many conservatives have implored Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to change Senate rules and eliminate the 60-vote threshold required to move major legislation forward. McConnell has rejected the requests.
Many conservative House Republicans took aim at the Senate rules again on Friday.
“Whoever is in that speaker’s chair has the same mathematics,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. “And they will not be able to repeal those mathematics until the rule in the Senate changes.”
In the weeks ahead, the congressional mood is likely to get more confrontational as the newly empowered conservatives exploit their opening.
Sean Cockerham and Lindsey Wise of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and Don Worthington of The (Rock Hill) Herald contributed.