Throughout John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker, it has often been difficult to tell who was really calling the shots in the House of Representatives. It now looks as though his final weeks in power will be no different.
Boehner, who has frequently had to pull bills from the floor when faced with the revolt of his most right-wing members and has been otherwise constrained when it comes to cutting deals with a Democratic president, made the surprise announcement Friday that he would step down at the end of October.
In another unexpected move, Boehner said Wednesday that House Republicans will vote to identify his successor next week.
“After consulting with our conference, a large majority of our members have made clear they want these elections held next week. With their considerations in mind, the House leadership elections will take place on Thursday, October 8,” he said in a statement released by his office.
The current favorite to replace Boehner is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and if the fractious Republican caucus can find 218 members willing to support him, that would mean that as soon as next Thursday, McCarthy could only be a floor vote away from assuming the speakership.
However, Boehner’s staff has indicated that he intends to postpone a final floor vote on the new speaker until the end of October, retaining the speakership in the meantime.
If Boehner follows through, it will create a very uncommon situation: a speaker maintaining his grip on the gavel despite the fact that his de facto successor has sought and received the support of the majority party.
Typically, lame ducks don’t hang around in leadership positions. In August 2014, after losing a primary election that guaranteed he would not be a member of the next Congress, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) resigned his leadership position and, shortly afterward, retired from Congress.
In 1989, then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) resigned his speakership under the cloud of an ethics investigation. Wright announced his resignation on May 31, to be effective on the election of his successor. When the Democratic caucus named Tom Foley of Washington as his successor one week later, Wright immediately stepped down.
Many Democrats, as well as people simply interested in seeing the United States government function at a minimally acceptable level of effectiveness, were hopeful that in the weeks between now and the end of October Boehner would overlook the objections of his party’s hard right wing and use Democratic votes to help move key legislation through the chamber.
In comments over the weekend, Boehner stoked those hopes, saying that he wants to get “as much as possible” done and to avoid leaving his successor what he called a “dirty barn.”
To many, that meant that in addition to overseeing the passage of a continuing resolution that would avoid a government shutdown, Boehner might try to pass a highway bill, reauthorize the Export-Import Bank and maybe even raise the debt ceiling.
However, the existence of a designated successor for whom his party has already voted waiting in the wings would complicate the situation. Boehner’s departure is largely seen as a victory for the hard-right element of the House GOP. Many strenuously object to Boehner’s occasional decisions to pass legislation they don’t like by enlisting the help of Democrats.
Given the antipathy of the right wing of the Republican caucus toward Boehner and the problems they have caused him over the years, it is difficult to imagine that they would sit idle as he works to pass legislation – presumably with Democratic support – after they have both forced his resignation and identified his successor.
Indeed, it is also hard to understand how that designated successor, McCarthy or another lawmaker, would be able to count on any future support from the party’s right flank without fighting to be named speaker immediately if Boehner tries to move controversial legislation.
In any event, Boehner won’t have a completely free hand for the next month, predicted Donald Wolfensberger, a senior scholar with the Wilson Center in Washington who works on that organization’s Congress Project.
“I would say that he is not going to be acting unilaterally,” he said. “I think Boehner is going to spell out to his leadership as to what his plans are and unless he has the backing of his leadership to move forward with these things, he won’t.”
While conceding that Boehner might have to enlist Democratic support to manage some of his priorities, Wolfensberger said, “He’s not going to go off the deep end by any means.”
“I don’t think he’s going to walk away with a completely clean barn, but he’ll clean out some corners,” Woldensberger added.
Indeed, some of Boehner’s fiercest critics seem unconcerned that the object of their anger will be hanging around for a few extra weeks.
Asked about Boehner’s plan, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who this summer filed a motion designed to oust Boehner, said Wednesday, “Really, at this point, certainly I’m okay with that.
“At this point the litmus test for future leadership races, obviously, is going to be how they vote. There’s not a handover of the gavel until there’s a vote on the House floor and I trust the speaker to do what’s best on behalf of the American people in the remaining 31 days” -- this last statement accented with a wink.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) also said he is fine with Boehner hanging around until the end of October, but takes issue with the leadership elections happening next week.
“It would be better if we had a leadership election where we have more time to discuss the candidates and make the appropriate decision before the speaker left,” he said. “There’s a huge gap in there and it seems to me with all of the items on the agenda we should see where these candidates are before we take a vote on the various positions.”