Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said Friday he will step down to avoid a looming challenge from conservative members of his caucus that could damage his Republican Party and the US Congress.
Boehner said that he would resign from Congress on October 30 to prevent “prolonged leadership turmoil.”
Boehner, who will also vacate his House seat, said he had long been considering retirement and was not quitting out of fear of losing a leadership fight.
“It was never about the vote. There was never any doubt about whether I could survive a vote,” he said in a press conference.
“I don’t want my members to have to go through [a leadership challenge], and I certainly don’t want the institution to go through this, especially when I knew I was thinking about walking out the door anyway.”
Just one day earlier Boehner presided over a joint session of Congress for an address by Pope Francis. A devout Roman Catholic, Boehner had sought for years to arrange a papal appearance in Congress and told reporters that he had nothing left to accomplish after he brought Francis to the Capitol.
Boehner said he was planning to quit last year, but set aside thoughts of resigning when his deputy was defeated for re-election. He started contemplating resignation on Thursday night.
“And this morning I woke up, and I said my prayers – as I always do – and I decided: Today’s the day I’m gonna do this. As simple as that. … This isn’t about me. It’s about the people. It’s about the institution.”
Boehner has been House speaker – the highest office of the legislative branch under the separation of powers in the US government – for nearly five years, often clashing with Democratic President Barack Obama over policies, including government spending and the president’s signature health insurance reforms.
Obama said he was surprised by Friday’s announcement, calling Boehner “somebody who understands that in governance you don’t get 100 per cent of what you want, but you have to work with people you disagree with – sometimes strongly – in order to do the people’s business.”
“John Boehner is a good man. He is a patriot,” Obama said in a White House press conference. “He cares deeply about the House, an institution in which he’s served for a long time, cares about his constituents and cares about America.”
Within his own party, Boehner has long faced an insurgency among members of the anti-government tea party movement, who had long deemed him too willing to compromise with Democrats.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats expressed dismay at the leadership change.
“By ousting a good man like Speaker Boehner – someone who understood the art of compromise – the party of Eisenhower and Reagan is no more,” Senate minority leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the upper chamber, wrote on Twitter.
Boehner is facing a Wednesday deadline to pass a 2016 federal budget or allow a government shutdown. He has been trying to avoid a repeat of the 2013 federal shutdown, which was seen as badly damaging the Republican Party’s brand.
Within his own party vocal critics who had been preparing to challenge Boehner’s leadership welcomed his departure.
“Now is the time for a principled, conservative leader to emerge in the House,” Heritage Action, a top right-wing lobby group, tweeted Friday.
Outside Washington, the leader of the grass-roots tea party Patriots thanked the group’s members for pressuring lawmakers to oust Boehner.
The top-ranked Republican behind Boehner, Kevin McCarthy of California, is considered a pragmatist but with good relations with hardliners in the House. He is an obvious candidate for speaker but seem likely to face competition, given the divisions among Republicans.
Boehner, who led opposition Republicans in the lower chamber since 2007, became speaker after the conservative party won a majority in the 2010 congressional elections.
A member of Congress from the Midwestern state of Ohio since 1991, he was seen as an establishment Republican and often faced opposition from more doctrinaire members of his own parliamentary faction.