WASHINGTON — Pope Francis’ historic address Thursday morning to a joint meeting of Congress marked not only the fulfillment of a dream for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. With the words of Pope Francis on servant leadership fresh in his mind, the Catholic lawmaker decided the next day that the time had come to give up his Speaker’s gavel and resign from Congress.
The Catholic lawmaker dropped the bombshell news on the House Republican conference Friday morning that he was leaving Congress on Oct. 30. Boehner had led the House of Representatives as Speaker since January 2011, after Republicans took majority control of the chamber following the November 2010 elections, and saw Republicans increase its majority in the 2014 general election to the highest level since the 1929-1931 Congress.
But the Speaker’s years had been marked by party infighting, a string of leadership defeats on legislative issues and intensifying calls from some conservative quarters in the GOP caucus to “fire Boehner.”
The most serious challenge came before the August recess, when Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina fired a shot across the bow by putting forward a motion to “vacate the chair” — a no-confidence vote that would have forced Boehner to get a majority of House votes to keep his position.
Meadows and the House Freedom Caucus, which consists of approximately 40 Republicans, have insisted the Speaker defund Planned Parenthood in a budget bill, a tactic the Speaker has resisted, since the Senate has not followed suit, and it would certainly lead to a veto by President Obama and a government shutdown.
At a Friday news conference, Boehner told reporters that he had “never any doubt” that he would have survived another challenge to his speakership. But he indicated he did not want the GOP caucus or the House to go through any more turmoil, since he had been thinking about leaving for more than a year. He explained that he did change his mind about stepping down last year, after Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost his seat in a primary election.
“This isn’t about me; it’s about the people and the institution,” he told reporters at a Friday afternoon news conference. He noted Pope Francis’ exhortation to Congress to live by the Golden Rule, adding, “Last night I was thinking about this, and this morning I woke up and said my prayers — as I always do — and I decided today is the day I’m going to do this.”
“This turmoil that has been churning now for a couple of months is not good for the members and not good for the institution,” he said.
“I feel good about what I’ve done. I’ve tried to do the right thing for the right reasons and the right thing for the country,” he said.
The Pope’s Meeting
Just a day before, Boehner achieved his personal dream of seeing a pope address Congress in a joint meeting and make history. Although monarchs, presidents and prime ministers had the honor in the past, Pope Francis’ acceptance of the speaker’s invitation marked the first time ever that the head of the Catholic Church would have this opportunity.
“Yesterday was a wonderful day,” he said, acknowledging that the Pope’s visit to Congress had been “emotional” for him. He did tell reporters about a private moment he shared with the Pope that deeply touched him.
“The Pope and I were getting ready to exit the building, we found ourselves alone, and the Pope grabbed my left arm and said some very kind words to me about my commitment — to kids and education,” Boehner said, choking up for a moment. “The Pope puts his arm around me and pulls me to him and says, ‘Please, pray for me.’ Well, who am I to pray for the Pope, but I did.”
Washington Post reporter Robert Costa noted in a blog entry that Boehner regaled him and another reporter with his personal encounter with the Pope on Thursday evening and looked like a changed man to them: “Boehner was at peace.”
A Catholic lawmaker familiar with Speaker Boehner told the Register that the congressional leader went to Mass every day and prayed for guidance when he first decided to run for Congress. But now, the speaker “was in an impossible situation” and unable to get his fellow Republicans to govern, due to a bloc of “recalcitrant members who had unrealistic expectations.”
“I think the Pope's visit to address Congress and Boehner's chance to meet with the Pope — and to have his entire family, including his newborn grandson, meet the Pope — made him feel that he had accomplished something very big personally,” the lawmaker said. “And maybe he decided there are better things for him to do in life.”
Only two people knew beforehand about the speaker’s resignation. Boehner told reporters he talked about it with his chief of staff that afternoon and with his wife at home that evening. When asked how his wife felt about his decision, Boehner said she told him, “Good!”
He added that he slept over the decision and after a morning walk in Washington he felt at peace. Boehner said he informed his stunned second-in-command, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who had to hear him repeat it five times, just “two minutes before” the Republican caucus meeting, where he was making the announcement.
Sources to CNN revealed Boehner told the GOP caucus that Pope Francis’ visit to Congress was a pivotal moment in his decision to resign now — the speaker had planned originally to resign in November, on his birthday — and then read them the prayer of St. Francis.
McCarthy, a Southern Baptist, is next in line for the House’s next speaker and become the second in line to assume the presidency, after the vice president. Boehner told reporters he would not be involved in the vote, but he voiced support for McCarthy as “an excellent speaker.”
However, that depends on whether enough conservative elements in the GOP caucus that have had a fractious relationship with Boehner will line up behind McCarthy. When Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced Boehner’s resignation at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, the room of a thousand activists cheered the news with sustained applause.
According to Matthew Green, an associate professor of politics and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, McCarthy has to win two simple majority votes — the vote of his caucus and the vote of a majority of the House — in order to win election as speaker of the House. McCarthy’s winning the GOP caucus vote is practically assured, Green said. The House vote is not: If 30 Republicans defect from McCarthy, and 188 Democrats vote for Pelosi, then McCarthy has no path to victory.
“Then no one is elected speaker, and you have to have another round of votes,” he said. The conservative objectors to Boehner also have not coalesced around an alternative. “It’s possible for a significant number of Republicans to gum up the works that way, but then you get back to the same question: So if McCarthy isn’t speaker, who would be speaker?”
Even if McCarthy wins the speaker’s gavel, the timing for him is less than ideal.
“He has to establish his authority in the party while all these big fights are going on over the budget, and abortion, and the debt limit — that’s a lot of stuff to deal with in your first month or two as speaker,” Green said.
The Planned Parenthood-Defunding Battle
Green said the other issue is that while the House Freedom Caucus and others are genuine in their desire to defund Planned Parenthood, the main issue is tactics. They lack the votes in the House for passing a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood at the cost of shutting down the government.
“If you don’t have enough votes in the House, that’s the problem,” he said. “Holding up government funding over this issue is probably not the wisest move, and they have got to think of ways to get what they want that are more likely to succeed.”
However, the National Right to Life Committee expressed its support of Speaker Boehner and his leadership legacy in the House of Representatives, calling him a “dedicated ally in the fight to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.”
“Throughout his career in the U.S. House, and most especially his tenure as speaker, he has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the cause of life,” NRLC President Carol Tobias said in a statement. “All of us in the right-to-life movement are grateful to Speaker Boehner for his leadership in our common cause of working for the day when all members of the human family are protected by our nation’s laws.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R- N.J., co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, told the Register that Friday's news from the man he has known for 25 years came as a surprise.
“Speaker Boehner’s commitment to a sound economy, improved educational opportunities for all and the culture of life served his constituents and our nation well,” he said. “I wish John and his family the very best as he enters the next phase of his life.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.