In a testament to the deep divide between the business and tea party wings of the Republican Party, the news of Speaker John A. Boehner's pending departure left K Street lobbyists reeling and conservative activists jubilant.
For tea party organizers at the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America, Boehner’s announced resignation from both his leadership post and his House seat caps a multi-year ideological war with the speaker and his allies over issues ranging from the debt ceiling to immigration, health care, the Export-Import Bank and most recently Planned Parenthood.
“The big takeaway is that the next speaker is going to have to be somebody who has deep respect for the conservative base of the party,” said Heritage Action for America spokesman Dan Holler. “The party can’t be seen as being cozy with Wall Street, being cozy with K Street, doing the bidding of Boeing and GE.”
Many K Streeters, by contrast, said they were shocked, if not surprised, by Boehner’s news, and voiced anxiety over what comes next. Business leaders have lost key policy battles over immigration and the Ex-Im Bank; have rallied behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the presidential race only to see him trail in the polls; and now face the prospect of yet another government shutdown.
“To some degree, it’s a setback, and you’ve already seen the John Boehner haters out there,” said Marc Lampkin, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and a former Boehner aide. In a world where Donald Trump is a top contender for the GOP nomination and where “more and more people worship at the altar of Rush [Limbaugh], this only gives them greater impetus to be defiant and to run against, in many respects, common sense.”
The view from K Street, as from many quarters, is that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, is the leading candidate to take over the speaker’s gavel from Boehner.
But tea party organizers reject McCarthy out of hand, saying that the next speaker should be someone from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is led by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.
“If they replace him with someone like Kevin McCarthy, nothing is going to change,” said Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, which lobbied members of the Kentucky congressional delegation to back a resolution that Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., was circulating to vacate the speaker’s chair and replace him with a conservative to their liking.
Tea party organizers have been angling to topple Boehner for years, whipping up conservatives over a long list of complaints that includes his endorsement of an immigration overhaul; his willingness to work with Democrats to win approval of such bills as fast-track Trade Promotion Authority for Barack Obama; and his punishment of Freedom Caucus members who disagreed with him. Boehner's recent reluctance to shut down the government over the Planned Parenthood controversy was to many conservatives a last straw.
Conservative lawmakers “were hearing from pissed off constituents, and a lot of that anger and ire fell back on Boehner,” said Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks.
K Street will miss Boehner — if he doesn’t end up working there himself as so many departing lawmakers have done.
“He had a very close relationship with K Street — that’s just kind of how it is,” said John Feehery, a former House GOP aide who worked for Boehner's predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert, and is now a lobbyist. “McCarthy’s got a lot of good contacts on K Street, too.”
Downtown talent scouts said Boehner would have many options should the soon-to-be-former speaker decide to pursue a career on K Street. Depending on the nature of the work, his salary could easily clear $1 million.
“He would be a huge catch for any firm on K Street,” said Ivan Adler, a K Street recruiter for the McCormick Group. “Besides the fact that getting a former speaker is a huge coup for anyone, I think his personality is perfect for the lobbying business.”
Tea party favorite, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, weighed in and speculated that Boehner would "land in a cushy K Street job," but only after teaming with Democrats to pass a number of measures. Boehner, who talked to reporters Friday, did not say what he'll do next.
Adler said that while Boehner’s departure will throw the speaker’s staff into a rapid search for new jobs, they are expected — as aides to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor did — to land well.
“Lots of his staff are professionals and certainly people have done well when their rabbi has left,” he said. “The value of the speaker’s staff is that they tend to know the whole caucus. And people that know the whole caucus are extremely valuable on K Street.”
The caucus, of course, is brutally divided.
“Boehner was such a whipping boy for the right,” said Kathryn Lehman, a lobbyist with Holland & Knight and one-time top House GOP aide. “The problem is not the House, the problem is you have Barack Obama at the White House and you need 60 Senate votes to get it done. So what have you accomplished? Nothing.”
For the GOP’s business-friendly wing, Boehner’s departure is a setback in the ongoing fight with more populist, hard-line conservatives.
“If you’re involved in public policy, you deal with the people who control the mantle of power,” said Lampkin. “Lots of people who represent big corporate interests are probably saddened by this because it represents a denigration of the institution.”
Conservatives, too, see Boehner’s departure as a signal of big changes ahead – but for the better. Said Brandon, of FreedomWorks: “I think you’re looking at a new GOP emerging out of this.”