Speaker John A. Boehner‘s stunning announcement Friday that he will resign from his House seat next month caps a 25-year career marked by legislative victories and intra-party conflicts.
Boehner’s third term as speaker started with a tumultuous election on Jan. 6 that saw 25 Republicans voting for someone else or voting present. The group of 25 was led by conservatives Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio. Boehner retained his speakership in part due to the largest GOP majority in the House in 68 years.
“We continue to work to bring those members along. But it’s always a work in progress,” Boehner told CBS News’ 60 Minutes after the vote.
Over the last nine months, Boehner has continued to struggle with challenges from the conservative branch of his party while making deals with Democrats to pass legislation.
He worked directly with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California in April to pass a more generous Medicare reimbursement formula for doctors. He bucked the White House by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session on Iran’s nuclear program in March, but he also cut bipartisan deals on trade promotion authority and homeland security funding.
In July, House Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows of North Carolina — who had been stripped of subcommittee gavel by leadership in June — set up a motion to remove Boehner as speaker. The non-privileged form of a motion to vacate the chair was referred to the Rules Committee, but the threat was received.
Since rising to the speakership in 2011, Boehner has regularly dealt with some of the biggest names in Washington. He has forged a partnership of sorts with key players like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee. He has established a rough working relationship with President Barack Obama through direct, hard-nosed negotiations and occasional agreements on stopgap fiscal measures.
In his first term as speaker, Boehner also had to deal with lawmakers who refused to collaborate on long-term reauthorization of highway and transit programs and a farm bill. He survived his party’s loss of a handful of seats in the 2012 elections by emphasizing his intent to broaden the GOP’s appeal in the 113th Congress. Boehner supported several centrists and fresher faces seeking bigger roles, such as Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who was elected conference chairwoman.
The 2012 election created “a mandate for us to find a way to work together,” he said. Boehner offered agenda items for the 113th Congress: repealing some components of the 2010 health care law (as opposed to the whole thing); and taking a “common sense, step-by-step approach” to secure the nation’s borders and “fix a broken immigration system.” He suggested working with Obama on a tax code overhaul and changes to entitlement programs.
But when Boehner tried to adjust his trademark laissez-faire management style to give himself a little more authority, there were uneven results. When GOP dissidents broke ranks on major votes, Boehner and other party leaders had them removed from key committees. The push to promote party loyalty angered some conservatives.
Several weeks later, he suffered a public defeat while trying to negotiate a deficit reduction package with Obama. Hoping to give his party some political cover, he proposed an extension of expiring tax cuts, except for income over $1 million. Conservatives shot the plan down. As he pulled the plug on the tax measure in a caucus meeting, Boehner acknowledged that he did not have the votes and recited the Serenity Prayer. He then left negotiations in the hands of senators and the White House.
A rich baritone and a bantering style made Boehner a popular figure among Republicans. He has an easy sense of humor and rolls with the punches when people joke about his tan, chain smoking and devotion to golf. His tendency to get teary-eyed at emotional moments — on display Thursday during Pope Francis‘ historic address to Congress — gives a glimpse of the passion below his cool surface. He encourages frank talk in closed-door meetings with members and has frequent huddles to plot strategy with McCarthy, his top lieutenant with purview over committees and floor votes.
After a long career in Congress, Boehner is more a creature of the institution than are the next-wave Republicans in his caucus. Still, he scored points with his party’s right wing by walking away from deficit reduction negotiations with Obama in 2011 because of proposed tax increases. Boehner’s insistence on pairing an increase in the government’s borrowing limit with spending cuts was ultimately accommodated in the bill Obama signed that August.
He also regained some footing in the early stages of the 113th Congress; he coordinated with conservative leaders on strategies for upcoming debates on taxes and spending. There was minimal dissent as fiscal 2013 spending laws were enacted in the early spring.
Soon after Republicans regained the majority in the 2010 elections, Boehner promoted changes aimed at reducing spending and emphasizing a regular-order process on the floor and in committees. He pressed for a “cut-go” requirement to bar new spending initiatives from coming to the House floor under suspension of the rules unless they were offset by spending cuts. He also backed an end to many votes on commemorative resolutions that celebrate civic achievements or name post offices.
Such changes reflected his penchant for bold gestures, which dates back to his freshman term in the 102nd Congress (1991-92). Then, he pushed for full disclosure during the 1992 scandal involving members who overdrew their House checking accounts. His zeal made him a favorite of the new breed of confrontational Republicans led by Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and four years later he became GOP Conference chairman. After Republican setbacks in the 1998 election, Boehner lost his post. He focused on serving as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, where he promoted the 2002 education law known as No Child Left Behind.
His rehabilitation was completed when he was elected majority leader in February 2006, replacing Tom DeLay of Texas. After Republicans lost their majority that November, Boehner spent four years as minority leader. He was the easy choice for speaker when Republicans surged back into the majority.
Boehner’s story is as good as any politician’s rags-to-riches tale. He grew up in western Ohio’s Rust Belt with 11 siblings. As a kid, Boehner rose at 5 a.m. to help his father, Earl, sort bottles and mop floors at Andy’s Cafe restaurant and bar. He was a linebacker on his high school football team.
Boehner worked his way through Xavier College as a janitor. After graduating, he and a partner bought a small plastics and packaging firm, Nucite Sales Inc., and built it into a multimillion-dollar business. In his first political race he won a seat on a township board.
He went on to serve six years in the Ohio House. In 1990, he joined the primary field challenging Rep. Donald E. “Buz” Lukens, who had been convicted of having sex with a teenage girl. Boehner outspent the front-runner, former Rep. Thomas N. Kindness, and won with 49 percent of the vote. That November, he bested Democrat Gregory V. Jolivette, a former mayor of Hamilton. His re-elections have not been particularly difficult.