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Plagued by GOP divisions, Speaker John Boehner resigns from Congress

Since assuming the speakership in 2011, Boehner has struggled to maintain control of rancorous caucus

WASHINGTON — Speaker John Boehner, in a stunning announcement, told his Republican colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday that he would resign from Congress and step down from his position as leader of the GOP caucus at the end of October.

Boehner’s resignation is but another reflection of the divisions tearing at the Republican Party in recent years. Since being elected Speaker in 2011, Boehner has constantly struggled to maintain control of the rancorous majority, facing repeated insurgencies from its most conservative members, who have demanded that Boehner hold a harder line against the Obama administration and reject any compromise with the Democrats.

The announcement came only a day after Boehner fulfilled what he described as a long-held dream of arranging a visit by the pope to Congress — and just days before the U.S. government will run out of funding unless gridlocked lawmakers can iron out a deal by Oct. 1.

Boehner, who has served the 8th district of Ohio since 1991, said in a Friday news conference that he had originally planned on resigning after serving four years as speaker in 2014, but had decided to stay at the end of the last year, after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. — Boehner’s No. 2 in Republican leadership — unexpectedly lost his congressional seat.

During the news conference, Boehner also acknowledged that the repeated broadsides against him from conservatives in his own party were damaging the process of governance.

“It’s become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” Boehner said, referring to Congress and the legislative process. “This morning, I woke up and said my prayers, like I always do, and I decided today’s the day I’m going to do this. I’ve always believed if you do the right things for the right reasons, the right things will happen. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

In 2013, conservative members of the House pushed Boehner to adopt the strategy of shutting down the government unless Democrats and the Obama White House agreed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, their signature health care law. In the end — after the federal government was shuttered for 16 days, costing the economy an estimated $24 billion — the law remained in place, but the GOP’s image took a battering.

In recent weeks, many of the same conservatives have said they are again willing to close the government to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization that has drawn fire from abortion opponents because of its alleged role in a controversy over fetal tissue donation. Some GOP representatives hinted that they would be willing to oust Boehner if he tried to bring to the House floor a government funding bill that includes Planned Parenthood money.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Boehner’s resignation “seismic” for the House.

“The resignation of the Speaker is a stark indication of the disarray of the House Republicans — a demonstration of their obsession with shutting down the government at the expense of women’s health and a sign of the failure of the House Republicans to be able to willing to engage in dialogue for the good of the American people,” she said in a news conference Friday. 

Some speculate that Boehner’s surprise resignation makes a government shutdown next week less likely, as conservative House Republicans can count his retirement a momentary victory, and Boehner can team up with Democrats to pass a temporary budget bill with Planned Parenthood funding intact, without fear of reprisal from his own caucus.  

Tom Davis, a former Republican member of the House from Virginia and a moderate, said he does not expect the next speaker to be able to manage the caucus more effectively.

“John Boehner was a good leader, but he didn’t have enough followers,” Davis said.  “And given the fragmentation of the caucus, it’s unlikely that it will be any easier for the next person — the dynamics haven’t changed.”

GOP strategist Ron Bonjean too said Boehner was effective at managing the Democratic White House and his chamber’s conservative members, given the circumstances.

“The Speaker is an easy target,” Bonjean said. “While conservatives complained about him, they also praised him for letting their voices be heard.”

Some hard-liners rejoiced over the news of Boehner’s resignation. At a gathering of socially conservative activists in Washington on Friday, there was an extended ovation when Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential GOP candidate, announced Boehner’s decision.

“I’m not here today to bash anyone,” Rubio said. “But the time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., another 2016 candidate who has repeatedly railed against Republican congressional leadership as being too accommodating, took an even more brazen parting shot at the speaker at the same gathering.  

“Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House,” Cruz said to the crowd. “Y’all come to town and somehow all of that changes. My only request is: Can you come to town more often?”

Other colleagues from both sides of the aisle, however, praised Boehner’s long service to the House.

"I don't know if this was a message from God but I wish he sent a different message,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told reporters. 

President Barack Obama praised Boehner in a White House news conference as a “good man” and a “patriot.”

"My hope is there’s a recognition on the part of the next speaker — something I think that John understood, even if at times it was challenging to bring his caucus along — that we can have significant differences on issues, but that doesn’t mean you shut down the government,” Obama said. “That doesn’t mean you risk the full faith and credit of the United States."

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