Trending in D.C.: The End of the Boehner Era

On Friday morning, Washington was rocked by the news that John Boehner would resign his position as Speaker of the House, as well as resign from the House of Representatives entirely.  Nobody saw this announcement coming, including his close associates in Congress.  

Even his staff members weren’t prepared for the announcement.  He told his staff about the decision right before he made the public announcement in a meeting of House Republicans.  

Why would a person in a position with so much power give it up so abruptly?  

Speaker Boehner, in making his announcement, cited a number of reasons for his decision.  Boehner said he had intended to resign at the end of 2014.  However, when Representative Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary election and then resigned from the House, Speaker Boehner felt obligated to stay on and maintain the continuity of the office.

A second reason for Boehner’s resignation was the impact of the Pope coming to Washington and speaking before Congress.  The visit from Pope Francis was the first time a Pope has spoken to Congress.  It was something Boehner had been trying to set up his entire career in the US House.  He had asked every previous Pope to come, and he had been working on the event for over a year.  This visit was the high point of Boehner’s career, and he wanted to go out on top.  

However, perhaps the most important reason Boehner chose to resign is his ongoing battle to fight off constant attacks from the far right wing of the Republican Party in the House.  Ever since Boehner was elected as Speaker, he has been criticized by conservatives as being too moderate and not standing up to the President and the Democrats in Congress enough.  And since the battle over funding of Planned Parenthood erupted there have been increased rumblings about a coup to remove Boehner as Speaker.  In his Friday press conference he said he was concerned that these constant battles could cause “irreparable harm” to the House.  He decided it was best for him just to move on rather than continue the fight.

What does this mean for Republican leadership in the House?

With John Boehner leaving, the odds-on favorite to take over as Speaker is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.  McCarthy is relatively new to the House, having been first elected in 2007.  He very quickly rose through the leadership ranks, first as Chief Deputy Whip in 2009, then Majority Whip in 2011, and then to Majority Leader in August 2014.  He is well respected, and no mainstream Republican will challenge him.

However, House members of the right wing of the Republican Party are sure to put up a fight, and they will not let McCarthy assume leadership easily.  They see the Boehner resignation as a victory, and they want to build on that success.  They feel that at the very least, House leadership needs to make concessions to them and address their issues.  They are also unhappy with what they see as capitulation to the President and Democrats, and they want someone who will take the fight to the Democrats on their critical issues.  And while the right-wing House members don’t have enough votes to elect a Speaker, they may have enough votes to prevent a speaker from being elected.  

What does this mean for the prospects of a government shutdown?

All the drama surrounding the change in House Leadership also has huge implications for the possibility of a government shutdown in the next few days.  If Congress fails to pass legislation to fund the federal government by September 30, we will see a repeat of the shutdown that lasted 16 days in 2013.  

Most people viewed the shutdown as a negative event that hurt more than it helped.  However, the right wing members who forced the shutdown disagree.  They see it as a valid method of forcing the debate of difficult issues in Washington.  They would be happy to force another shutdown this year over the funding of Planned Parenthood.  And they are quick to point out that the 2013 shutdown did not result in widespread damage to Congressional Republicans.  In fact, a year later, in the 2014 elections, Republicans gained a dozen seats in the House, resulting in their largest majority since the Great Depression, and retook the Senate.

With Speaker Boehner’s announced resignation, the probability of a shutdown has dropped significantly, at least this time.  House conservatives cannot threaten his job, so he has the freedom to cut a deal and find a compromise.  However, any funding deal will only extend the debt ceiling until December.  Whoever ends up winning the Speaker position will inherit a tough issue right before the Christmas holiday.