updated at 12:22p (CDT), September 25, 2015
House Speaker John Boehner announced Friday that he will resign from Congress at the end of October. Boehner’s retirement will be rare for a person holding the top position in the middle of a session. The last time a Speaker resigned without losing control of the party was Texas Democrat Jim Wright, who resigned in 1989 amid an ethics scandal.
The son of a bartender and a popular congressman back home, Boehner’s retirement will end a five-year tenure as Speaker filled with party fracturing between right-wing conservatives and establishment Republicans over issues such as how far to go to combat Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Boehner, 65, had intentions to depart after the 2014 midterm elections but stayed on because of Eric Cantor’s surprised defeat, Boehner said in a news conference.
“The Speaker believes putting members through prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution,” an aide said. “He is proud of what this majority has accomplished, and his speakership, but for the good of the Republican Conference and the institution, he will resign the Speakership and his seat in Congress, effective October 30.”
During a news conference over his resignation, Boehner has said he was proud of what Congress has accomplished.
“It’s about the people, it’s about the institution,” he said. He said that he didn’t decide to finally resign until after going through his morning routine, having spoken to his wife that he may resign but wasn’t sure.
The Speaker, known for his sensitivity, was especially emotional Thursday during the visit by Pope Francis, appearing to wipe away tears at multiple occasions during the speech and again when the pontiff made an appearance to the 50,000 onlookers outside of the Speakers balcony overlooking the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Boehner briefly said to two reporters as he was leaving Thursday evening that there was nothing left to accomplish.
He said he was especially moved by the pope’s speech and his reminding the American people that they should abide by the Golden Rule. He later thanked his family for putting up with his political ambitions. He also thanked his staff for working beside him over the past 25 years, the constituents who have elected him each cycle and the many other people he has been able to meet over his tenure in the House.
“You meet rich people, you meet poor people, you meet interesting people and a few boring ones along the way,” Boehner said. “I could tell you that 90 percent of the people I met on the road could not have been nicer.”
Boehner took over as Speaker thanks to the 2010 Tea Party sweep of Republicans into power after popular discontent with the work of President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in both the U.S. House and Senate. Unfortunately for the Ohio Republican, this was the start of a fracturing between members in the House as internal struggles over budget limits, Obamacare, negotiations with Obama and using the power of shutting down the government created large chasms between the Speaker’s team and newcomers to the Hill bent on making sweeping change at every turn.
While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made public waves by being a firebrand and filibustering over budgetary issues, Boehner and Obama stayed behind closed doors to try and cut a deal on a fiscal agreements, none of them successful. Not all was lost for Boehner, though, as he was able to push through a free-trade deal with Pacific nations and reformed entitlement programs. But as the summer edged closer to recess, Boehner was facing renewed criticism from Tea Party conservatives who wanted him removed as leader.
Boehner said Thursday was an emotional day, with him finding himself alone with the pope at one point during the afternoon. He said the pope looked over at the speaker and gave him kind words for his work for children and families.
“He then put his arm around me and said ‘pray for me,'” Boehner said, fighting back tears and expressing awe at the pontiff’s remarks. “Who am I to pray for the pope?”
He said the visit, though, wasn’t what made him decide to resign. Nor was the political infighting and the potential vote against his speakership earlier this summer.
The announcement comes as he weighs how to handle Planned Parenthood, wanting to avoid a shutdown, and finalize the 2016 appropriations for the U.S. government. A funding bill is expected to arrive at the House next week, courtesy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that funds the women’s health clinic under fire for videos allegedly showing key figures in the organization selling body parts of aborted fetuses for profit. This move has been heavily criticized by Boehner’s conservative opponents as acquiescing to Democrats despite Obama’s threat to veto any defunding measure and McConnell unable to whip enough votes to override the veto.
There has been discussion by some members of the tea party caucus to remove Boehner as speaker, a move he was confident he would win if the fight came to a vote. But he also pointed out that it is demeaning to the office of speaker, not the person itself, to sully the position by having these kinds of votes.
Boehner’s decision was unveiled during a closed-door meeting with Republicans on Friday morning. It will likely set up a contentious leadership race with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy likely to take over the top spot, but not without a fight from conservatives likely to see this as an opportunity to finally take on Obama. Boehner said that his Republicans were shocked to find out he was stepping down.
He will still remain speaker through the month of October, which he said will give him time to get a few other things that need to get done before he goes home. Nothing will change in his decision-making process now that he is not beholden to reelection.
As far as what he will miss, Boehner said that he wasn’t fully sure until he is gone but does know the camaraderie of the House will be high on the list.