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Boehner To Step Down From Often Thankless Job. What's Next For His Successor?


This is the week that the pope came to town, the president of China stopped by and the speaker of the House resigned. We're going to start with that surprising announcement today by John Boehner. He says he will leave his position and House seat at the end of next month. The Republican faced unrelenting pressure from conservatives in his own party. NPR's Ailsa Chang begins our coverage.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Did the pope inspire him to do it? That was the question on perhaps everyone's mind this morning.


JOHN BOEHNER: No, no. Yesterday was a wonderful day. It really was.

CHANG: But he was struck by the pope's reference to the golden rule yesterday. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


BOEHNER: Last night, I started thinking about this. And this morning, I woke up, and I said my prayers as I always do. And I decided, you know, today's the day I'm going to do this - as simple as that.

CHANG: Boehner says he had been planning all along to announce on his 66th birthday in November that he'd be leaving by the end of this year. But mounting unrest among conservatives threatening to vote him out of the speakership accelerated his timing.


BOEHNER: Listen. It was never about the vote, all right? There was never any doubt about whether I could survive a vote. I don't want my members to have to go through this. I certainly don't want the institution to go through this. And so - especially when, you know, I knew I was thinking about walking out the door anyway. So it was the right time to do it, and frankly, I am entirely comfortable doing it.

CHANG: Did you get that? He's entirely comfortable.


BOEHNER: (Singing) Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a.

CHANG: Boehner surprised even his top lieutenants who found out just minutes before he announced to the stunned House Republicans. One of them is Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

PAUL RYAN: I was shocked that he did it. I'll just say, this is an act of pure selflessness. He put others over himself.

CHANG: Ryan has already said he doesn't want Boehner's job. It is often a thankless one, but in it, Boehner ushered in the largest Republican majority in the House since the 1920s. Tom Cole of Oklahoma says he deserves gratitude from fellow Republicans.

TOM COLE: We were road kill in 2009. For him to bring us back in the majority, sustain it through a reelection of a Democratic president and to be as effective as he's been legislatively, I think it's extraordinary.

CHANG: But extraordinary is not how many House conservatives would describe Boehner.

THOMAS MASSIE: What has happened here is that our republic was subverted because the speaker abused his power.

CHANG: Thomas Massie of Kentucky.

MASSIE: He took everybody's voting card. Look, when you get here, the deal is you never vote against the speaker, or you'll lose your committee assignment. You'll lose your subcommittee chairmanship. This is a condition of his own making right here.

CHANG: It's not just that he punishes conservatives, they say. He's too cozy with Democrats, relying on their votes over and over again. When it came to the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, funding the Department of Homeland Security, John Fleming of Louisiana says Republicans like him felt shut out.

JOHN FLEMING: Conservatives - core conservatives feel like that we have little if no voice, and yet we make up a substantial part of the conference. So we want to see balance. We want to make sure that our voices are heard as well.

CHANG: But that's the tricky thing about picking a leader. Republican Steve Womack of Arkansas says no person can magically wipe away the fissures that divide a fractious caucus.

STEVE WOMACK: I just think you can change the names. You can change the faces in leadership, and the pressures are going to remain the same. The issues are still there. The difference of opinion among the conference remains.

CHANG: And while Republicans figure out next steps, Democrats like leader Nancy Pelosi wonder who they're going to be doing battle with next.

NANCY PELOSI: Some would say the party's been hijacked by a fringe element in the House Republican party, and we're seeing evidence of that now.

CHANG: Boehner says he would support Kevin McCarthy, the current majority leader, to be the next speaker. And other candidates may be stepping forward in the coming days. Meanwhile, many Republicans say Boehner's news makes the chances of a government shutdown next week much lower. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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